As you’re being seated, take your Bibles and let’s turn together to the book of James. One of the later books in the New Testament, it’s on page 1011 if you’re using a pew Bible. I’m excited to be studying together for the next few months the book of James. And we’ll start off tonight with chapter 1, and verse 1. Again, that’s page 1011. If you’re a visitor, good to see you, good to have you with us. We’re glad you’re here! Let’s go to the Lord in prayer and ask His blessing on our time!
Father, now we come to learn from Your Word and we ask that You would teach us, that the one who speaks would disappear behind the one we’ve just sung about, the one where sorrow and love flowed mingled down, in Jesus. We ask that we would see Him and that You would make Him more beautiful and believable than the idols that so easily bewitch us. We ask this all in His name. Amen.
James 1:1. Just one verse tonight! This is God’s holy, inspired, and therefore inerrant Word:
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes of the Dispersion:
Thus ends the reading of God’s Word. May He add His blessing to it!
My senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to be an exchange student in France. I loved my time over there, it was a great experience, but on that long plane ride back I slept, and the only thing I was longing for was to hear my language spoken again. You know I loved learning French, but I was just ready to hear English all the time, and not just when I was with one of the English students that was on the trip. So I slept on the plane ride back and woke up when we landed and kind of stumbled out of the gate, and it was in Philadelphia before we flew back to Greenville. And there was a guy selling Philly cheesesteaks. And I had been eating a lot of French food, and a lot of grease in Philadelphia looked good to me at that moment. So I walked over and I was looking at the menu for all of about a second and a half, and he looks at me and says, “What do you want? Hurry up!” Welcome back to America! So I just sat there and grinned at him and he must have thought I’d lost my mind, but it was so good to hear English being spoken all around me then, even if it was rude Philadelphian English.
Well when we’ve been in a strange place we want to hear our language spoken, and what James does for us is he speaks our language. That’s what he’s going to tell us tonight. He’s going to tell us we’re strangers and we need somebody to speak our language in this world. And that’s what the book of James does for us. This is probably the earliest New Testament book. Scholars debate, but probably written about A.D. 41, so under a decade after the resurrection. James writes to a church that one commentator said, listen to this, I think it describes our American church today – “A church marked by intolerance, favoritism, and the overpowering desire for wealth and status.” That’s not what you put when you want to call a pastor, but that’s what James was dealing with. The other thing you have to note about James is that it’s a hundred and eight verses long. It will take you about twenty to twenty-five minutes at an average reading pace to read through all five chapters. And in those hundred and eight verses there’s fifty-nine commands. Because of that, this is one reason Martin Luther wondered whether or not the book of James should be in the Bible. He called it, in typical Lutheran way, “a Right Strawy Epistle.” He did not think that it had the Gospel in it the same way the other New Testament books did; wondered if it should be in the New Testament canon. What we’ll see, as we study it, is that James, while he gives us a lot of commands, is full of Gospel and he is one who teaches us what it means to live well under the kingdom of Jesus. It’s a letter full of grace!
And it’s wisdom literature. That’s a category in the Bible. And wisdom in the Bible is not so much about beard length or how much you know about a given subject. Wisdom, in the Bible, means that you have skill to live life well to the glory of God. That’s what James is going to teach us. He’s going to teach us how to live life well to the glory of God under the reign of Jesus Christ. And what I want us to see from this verse this evening is this – James, the unlikely messenger, gives an uncertain people hope by showing them what they are as slaves of grace and strangers in this world. James, the unlikely messenger, gives hope to uncertain people by showing them what they are as slaves of grace and strangers in this world. So we’ll look at this text under two headings. In the first place, an unlikely messenger, and in the second place, an uncertain people.
- An Unlikely Messenger
An unlikely messenger. It starts off, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Now which James is this? Well one James is martyred in the book of Acts, another one we don’t hear much from after the time of the apostles, and so that leaves one option. It’s our Lord’s half-brother! Scholars are agreed on this; this is likely who the author was. It was the half-brother of Jesus. Now think about that with me just for a second. I grew up with three brothers in the house. They know where all the dirt is on me. They know all my bad stuff! And my parents mercifully never said, “Why can’t you be more like your older brother?” They never said stuff like that! But imagine growing up in the household with God! That’s who James grew up with – God incarnate. And you can imagine disputes that might have happened in the house at that point. “Why can’t you do everything right like Jesus?” I don’t know if that was said, but you can imagine what it would be like to be the half-brother of Jesus, and here’s the thing; James didn’t get the Gospel for a while. If you were to turn over to Mark chapter 3 in verse 32 you’d read that James, His brother, His half-brother, is outside with his mother telling Jesus that He’s out of His mind. If you were to flip over to John chapter 7 verses 3 through 5 you’d read about another similar incident where James thinks his brother’s out of His mind. He didn’t believe it right away! That’s why he’s an unlikely messenger because he goes from that – he goes from being an outsider, an outsider to the kingdom that his half-brother is going to inaugurate, to an insider. Did you catch it? Now he calls himself this, “A servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Jesus Became a Servant
Now that word he uses there for “servant” is a Greek word that almost without exception in other translations of literature from the time is translated as “slave.” Now that word means something totally different to us in 21st century America than it meant in 1st century Rome where James is writing, in that area, 1st century Middle East, 1st century Mediterranean area. There’s about four different kinds of slavery in the Roman era. In fact, the wealthiest man we know of outside the emperor was actually a slave, so it’s not the same kind of slavery that was practiced here, and we’ll talk more about that in a moment, but he uses a strong word. He says, “I’m a slave.” And it’s interesting that Paul uses this same word to describe Jesus in Philippians 2 verse 7, that great part of Philippians where Paul says Jesus, in the form of God, “emptied himself and took the form of a slave.” Think about that with me for just a second! The one who made everything, the one who always enjoyed His Father’s smile, His Father’s love, His Father’s care, the one who made breath and life and caused our life to be sustained, Paul says became a slave! Became a servant of people, people who would eventually crucify Him.
Now that ought to speak to us because James says, “That’s who I am. I’m a slave of the one who became a slave for me.” That is unlike anything else in this world. No other religion, no other philosophy, no other worldview ever, in any part of our history, gives you a God who becomes a slave. Only Christianity! And James says, “Now that I’ve understood that and believed that by faith, I want to be a slave to the one who was a slave for me.” And that’s what he’s calling us to remember and to understand about who we are ourselves. He says, “I’m a servant, a slave of God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” his brother, the Lord. So James is an unlikely messenger.
Leaders Must First Become Servants
And notice what he doesn’t do here; He doesn’t pull the authority card on them right off the bat, does he? He doesn’t say, “Listen to me because I’m an apostle and I’m Jesus’ half-brother. You want eye-witness reports? I’m your guy!” He doesn’t do that! He says, “I’m a servant. I’m a slave.” That is a good word for those of us who hold leadership positions in the church. Our identity first and foremost is not people who have authority to be exercised over other people. Our identity, first of all as those who lead, is servant, slave, as James says. That’s the mark of somebody who is ready to lead. Is their first impulse, “I get to be a leader” or is their first impulse, “I get to be a slave and serve these people that way”? And James says that. And again, don’t think American slavery. What James’ point is here by using this word? The central trait of a slave at this time was someone who had lost his ability and privilege to live as he pleased. And isn’t that a fitting word for what happens to us when we become Christians? We don’t belong to ourselves anymore. We don’t get to do as we please. We listen to the Master, our Lord Jesus Christ, and we do what He says. That’s what it means to be a slave! It means that we’re no longer ours. The moment we become a Christian we become His, and He does with us as He pleases and sees fit. But you can trust Him, because He’s the only King who’s also a slave. He’s the only King who serves His slaves. Nobody else! That’s why we can be sure of Him.
The New Israel of God
Now who’s James writing to? He’s the only other New Testament writer besides Peter to use this designation of the people he writes to. “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” That is Jewish language and that gives us an uncertain people. And James says, “Here’s who I am. I’m a slave. I’m a servant. Here’s who you are.” And he says first of all, “to the twelve tribes.” Why would he call the church that? Why would he say, “twelve tribes”? Well if you know the Old Testament at all, the twelve tribes of Israel were God’s people in the Old Testament, and so what James is doing here is a couple of things. He’s saying the church now is just like Israel was in the Old Testament. That’s God’s special people, and it’s not just limited to Jews. Now understand, as we’re going to get into this epistle, how hard that is for a Jewish guy like James to write. When James was at the council in Jerusalem that we read about in Acts 15, he approved and saw the Lord coming to the Gentiles, i.e. all of us of non-Jewish descent, and he said, “The Lord has granted them repentance and faith as well,” and James celebrates that. And he says to people who would have formally been his enemies, a mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles, “You’re the new Israel. You’re God’s special people. He’s chosen you. He’s going to talk more about that in a few verses. So he says, “You’re just like Israel in the Old Testament.”
And then he wants us to think about what that means. What happened to Israel in the Old Testament? Well, they’re saved by God, they’re brought out in the exodus from Egypt and they spend forty years wandering in the wilderness, and it does not go well for them. It’s a generation marked by unbelief, and only two of that original generation actually entered the Promised Land while hundreds of thousands perished in the wilderness. And the wilderness for the New Testament writers is the place where our lives are lived now – in between the comings of Jesus. It’s a place of testing, not resting. It’s a place where trials and hardships come. Does that sound like your life? That’s who James is writing to – a place and people who experience these things on a daily basis. And he says, “Think about what happened in the Old Testament. That’s what’s going to happen now.”
Now here’s the difference though. In the Old Testament, a lot of times it was Israel’s sin and unbelief that brought their trials and hardships on them. James is going to tell us just the opposite! He’s going to say, as we’ll study next week, “Count it all joy when trials come because God gives them.” Why does God send trials to us? Because by faith in this Lord Jesus Christ he’s just told us about, by faith when we are identified with Him, whatever is true of Jesus is true of us. That’s really good news! Is He righteous? We’re righteous because of what He’s done in our place. Did He suffer and experience daily trials and tribulations? Then we will too! James is writing to people who are being severely tried. He’s writing to people a lot like us then. People who have gone through all kinds of difficulties, tribulations, all kinds of suffering in our lives. And James says, “I have good news for you. This is not new, it’s no unexpected, and Jesus is going to be with you through it.” That’s where he’s going to go with this. He says, “You’re just like Israel in the wilderness, those twelve tribes.”
The Church in Dispersion
And then he says something else about them. He says, “You’re of the Dispersion.” What was the Dispersion? The Dispersion refers to the time when all the Jews were scattered from Jerusalem. That occurs from about 622 B.C. to 586 B.C. The northern kingdom falls in 622; the southern kingdom falls in 586. And from there, the Jews disperse. If you want to read about it, the Old Testament book of Daniel and the Old Testament book of Jeremiah give you the most details on what that looks like. But here’s James’ point; he says, “You’re just like Old Testament Israel and you’re just like all those Jews who were scattered abroad, away from Jerusalem, into exile.” Now what is the main thing, if you read through the Old Testament, that the Jews who were in exile wanted to do? What is the thing that keeps coming back? They want to remember who they are. They want to remember the practices of Jerusalem, the worship of Jerusalem. For instance, when Daniel is given a Babylonian name, he still has his Hebrew name. He has his identity as Daniel and not as his Babylonian name. Every day he prays a certain way because he’s living in exile and he has to remember who he is.
And that’s what James says about us. He says, “Don’t give in to the culture around you that wants to give you a new identity.” Why did Babylon give new names? Why did they do that? Because they said to every person that they captured in their empire, “You don’t belong to where you were anymore. You belong to us now and we’re going to exercise that authority by naming you.” And James applies that in a spiritual realm and says, “You used to be servants of the devil, as it were, servants of the world. That’s not who you are anymore. You’re like the Old Testament tribes scattered abroad and you cannot give in to all the temptations around you to be like the place where you’re a stranger.” In a few words, “Remember your homeland.” That’s what James is saying. “You’re just dispersed; you’re just here in exile. This world is not your home.” That’s what James reminds us.
Why am I not Satisfied?
And you see what he wants us to see is that knowing who you are makes all the difference. And if you’re not a Christian here tonight, welcome; glad you’re here. If you’re not a believer, the reason why – maybe you’ve experienced this – you try all kinds of stuff to feel satisfied, to feel fulfillment in your lives, and you wonder why it never happens, right? Even good days aren’t perfect. Even the best of days aren’t perfect. You’re never satisfied! You don’t want them to end and when they do end, we’re always trying to get back to that time when it was right and good and everything was calm and the perfect day we had, whatever that is for you. And you never get back there. And one of the reasons for that is this – we’re never meant to find full satisfaction in this life. Does God give us good gifts? James is going to tell us that. The God and Father who gives every good gift. He’s going to tell us that. Yes, God gives us good gifts, but our problem is we want the creation and all the good gifts God gives us to be ultimate when they’re never going to be ultimate. And so if you’re not a believer and you just keep wondering, “Why am I not satisfied? You know I work, I’ve got relationships, I like to drink maybe too much,” maybe you’re addicted to pornography, maybe you’re addicted to some kind of substance, prescription pain killers, whatever it is that it’s never enough and you wonder why that is, it’s because you are not made to find perfect harmony and wholeness in this fallen world. Only the kingdom that’s coming can give you that! Only Jesus can do that! And what James is going to say to us, and to say if you’re not a Christian, he’s going to say, “Come, walk with me. It’s better over here with Him than where you are now.”
The Truth About Boredom
Now if you’re a Christian, let me ask you about boredom. Have you ever been bored this week? Maybe you’ve been bored a lot this week. I’ve been thinking a lot about boredom recently and boredom is only accelerated in this day and age when our thumbs are probably the strongest muscle in our bodies from thumbing through our iPhones, right? And we’re bored easily! I mean, a new phone comes out every few months to drive this hunger for the next best thing, and this is why the Facebook feed keeps you scrolling. It is to constantly fight against any temptation to boredom. But the problem is, again, we end up bored. What we thought was going to give us satisfaction, what we thought was going to give us some fulfillment, ends up not doing that. Why? Because we too easily forget, just like so many people who may not be Christians, we forget that this world is not our home if we’re believers, that we were never meant to find fulfillment here, that we will always get bored until Jesus comes back. There will always be boredom! That is part of life in a fallen world. It is, as one author put it, “a foretaste of hell.” That’s what boredom is. Think about that!
And James calls us and says, “You, who you really are, is not where your zip code is, it’s not where you vacation, it’s not what you do, it’s not where your children go to camp, it’s not where we went to college, it’s not what fraternity or sorority we were in” – all good things; all good things. “Not who we are fundamentally,” James says. Fundamentally we are servants of Jesus and strangers in this world. And what James wants us to see is that you’ll never, never enjoy the good gifts he’s going to mention until we get that mindset right – that we’re strangers here. And again, if you’ve ever been to a foreign country you know what that feels like. You feel out of sorts. James says that’s how we should feel in this world – enjoy the gift, but realize it’s not ultimate here. It never will be. Only Jesus is ultimate!
Jesus is the Best Master
And that’s why, as James tells us here this evening, there’s nothing better than being enslaved to Jesus. Again, don’t let that term “slavery” trip you up! Don’t think about it in terms of what was practiced here in the 19th century. That is not what James has in mind. What he’s saying is that it’s somebody who has given himself completely to his master. And James, again and again, and this is a guy who grew up with Jesus, is saying, “He’s the best Master. There’s nothing better than being enslaved to Him.” And so what the rest of the letter is going to detail is how you do that, how you live as a slave of grace, of the one who died for you and me, how we skillfully live for His glory. Have you ever been around somebody who lived life well? You know what I’m talking about! Somebody who just got it. I’ve been around woodworkers who are really good and what they do and they just get it and I’m baffled. You know I cut up a 2x4 and it ends up looking like a snowflake when I’m trying to build a table! And I see people who are skilled at what they do and they just kind of do it. They’re good with their hands. Wouldn’t it be great to live life that way? Wouldn’t it be great to know how to live life skillfully?
James says, “I’m telling you who you are, and I’m going to tell you how to do that not in order that you might earn salvation.” James is not a legalist! We will see that when we get to chapter 2. James does not believe you are saved by works. He is not in competition with Paul! And on any measure, James and Paul agree completely on the Gospel. What James is saying to us is basically an invitation like his older half-brother gave which was, “Do you want to do life differently? Are you tired of where it is for you right now? Are you tired of sin and feeling like a slave to that? Come with me and let me show you a better way.” James is inviting us to walk with him as we walk with Jesus as a slave of grace. Could there be any kind of slavery that could ever be any better than to be enslaved to the one who became a slave for us? There’s no greater slavery than to be a servant of Jesus while we’re a stranger in this world. And so right off the bat, James says, “For the rest of this letter you must understand who you are” because everything that he’s going to say starts out with knowing what defines you.
It reminds me of something I read not too long ago. My older brother, my oldest brother who is one of my best friends, we’re very close, he was a North Carolina State graduate and if you know anything about NC State basketball there was this storied coach by the name of Jim Valvano. He won the national championship in 1983 and it was a big story because he upset the University of Houston and it had some of these great NBA stars on it. They kind of came out of nowhere! They were the lowest ranked seed and they won the NCAA tournament. Well Jim Valvano was legendary in Raleigh. Everywhere there are streets named after him. Well about ten or so years after he won that national championship he was diagnosed with cancer and there’s a wonderful speech he gave right toward the end of his life on the ESPY awards. You can see it on the ESPN 30 for 30 series. He gave this great speech and then a reporter asked him, he said, “What have you learned throughout all this?” And here’s what Valvano said. He looked back on his life and he told this story. When he was a twenty-three-year-old coach and wanted everything and was going for the moon, one of his small town college basketball players, it was at a tiny little out of the way college, said to Valvano, “Why is winning so important to you?” the college student asked. And Valvano replied, “Because the final score defines you. If you win, you’re a winner. If you lose, you’re a loser.” And this nineteen year old kid said, “I don’t think that’s right. I think what matters is that you’re out there, that you give it your best. I don’t think the final score defines you.” And Valvano blew him off! And he looked at this reporter, twenty-four years later at age forty-seven after he’d woken up in night sweats because of chemotherapy as his body slowly gave into cancer and as he died he said, “You know, one of the things I learned I would take all that back right now and I’ve realized that it’s not the final score that defines you. That player was right.”
And you see, James, in a similar way says that to us. Who or what defines you? If you want to end up full of regret like Coach Valvano by being defined by what a scoreboard says, or what you do or what’s been done to you or what you’ve been through or where your sin has you right now, then James says, “Don’t listen to what I’m saying.” But if you’re tired of that, if you want to be defined by God in His Son Jesus Christ as a Spirit indwelt person, then James says, “You’re an exile, you’re a slave – here’s how to live. And first and foremost your identity is in Christ and in what He has done. And now knowing that,” he says, “let me tell you what it means to live as a slave of grace.” Let’s pray!
Father, thank You for Your Word. Thank You for the truth it gives us. Help us, Lord, to put into practice this week whatever it is Lord, where we’re struggling with what defines us. Would You step in by Your grace and once again remind us that You define us as our Creator and as our Savior. We ask all these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
©2016 First Presbyterian Church.
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