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James 1:1-11: Hope in the Midst of Difficulties Print E-mail
Sunday, 08 March 2009

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The book of James is filled with commands about how we should live. We should love others, we should be wise, we should control the tongue, we should take care of orphans and widows, and more. It is a letter that encourages us in our practice of the faith. Yet, as we see so often in the New Testament, these commands and practices are always rooted in who we are in Christ. I have mentioned this before, but the Greek verb has an imperative mood which deals with commands and an indicative mood which are simple statements of fact. The New Testament writers build their imperatives, or commands, on their indicatives, or statements of fact. Thus, we are to do a certain thing (rejoice, seek wisdom, love) because of who we are (persons redeemed by the blood of Christ). Even though James focuses on the practice of our faith (the imperatives), he still bases his commands on the truth of our relationship with Christ. In fact, one of his main themes, which shows up in our text this morning, is for people to not be divided, but to live out who they claim to be in Christ. One of my commentators calls it “spiritual schizophrenia” and defines it: “a basic division in the soul that leads to thinking, speaking, and acting that contradicts one’s claim to belong to God.” 1 It would be my contention that we live in a culture of spiritual schizophrenia here in the ‘Bible belt.’ Thus, we desperately need to hear what James has to say to us. We need to recover the connection between imperatives and indicatives. I pray God will aid us as we study this book over the next several weeks.

As for further introduction to the book, let me briefly identify its author and recipients. Look at verse 1 with me. I believe that the author of this book is James, the brother of Jesus. Of the three James’ mentioned in the New Testament, he seems to be the most likely author of this book. He was an important leader in the Church at Jerusalem (see Acts 15) and would therefore have reason to write to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion. I take this phrase to mean Jewish Christians who were scattered out due to persecution in Jerusalem. These believers seem to be facing certain difficulties and hardships and James writes to encourage them in the faith, particularly their practice of the faith. He begins quickly and in the first eleven verses gives us three areas where we can have hope as believers. The first two areas are somewhat general and the third is more particular. Let’s look at these together this morning.

First, we can have hope in the face of trials (v. 2-4).

James begins the letter with his first exhortation. Look at verse 2. He calls us to have joy even when we face trials of various kinds. The reason why I see this area as more general is because of this phrase. James is not necessarily talking about religious suffering or persecution, although those are not excluded. Rather, he seems to be including all of the different trials that we face in life. In fact, in one sense, we are all facing some sort of trial this morning. Maybe you are wrestling with your finances due to the continuing economic crisis. Maybe you are waiting for a spouse or for children. Maybe you have both and are struggling to have a godly family. Maybe there are problems at work. Maybe the problem is that work is over (and you are not sure what to do with the time you have). I could go on and on, but I think all of these could fall under trials of various kinds that we face.

So what does James tell us to do in the face of all of that: count it all joy. He tells us to consider these trials and be joyful. So much for starting with something easy. Yet, as hard as the command is, it is something I want to obey. I have said it before, but I love it when the Bible commands me to rejoice. Of course, we must ask: how can I have joy in the midst of my trials? James goes on to help us. Look at verses 3-4. James tells us that these tests and trials are producing steadfastness, or endurance. Of course, endurance is not the final goal. Rather, endurance moves us forward to completion and perfection. As we face these trials and develop endurance, we are being perfected, moving us ever towards the ultimate goal of our salvation, namely conformity to the image of Christ. In other places this process is called sanctification. When we repent of our sins and trust in Christ we are justified, or counted righteous by God. Then the process of sanctification, or actually becoming more righteous in our attitudes and actions, begins. Ultimately, this all leads to glorification, which is when we will indeed be righteous, free from sin, and will dwell with the Lord forever.

So then, James’ exhortation to rejoice in our trials is based upon his belief that God is conforming us more and more into the image of Christ. His understanding of our salvation, or his soteriology, fuels the command to have joy even in our trials. When we face life knowing that the Lord is making us more like Christ in everything we face, then come what may, we can have joy. Yet, if I am honest, I have times (like our struggle with infertility) when I thought: ‘no lesson is worth this trial,’ and others have faced worse than me. What do we do in those moments? We fight to understand and know and believe in the weight of glory. Streets of gold may not be enough to get me through, but when I realize that those streets are planted firmly in the presence of God and I am there as his perfected child, then the response of joy is more plausible. So let’s fight for joy, fight to obey this command, by knowing and believing the truth about the great salvation that Christ has purchased for us.

Second, we can have hope in the face of our need for wisdom (v. 5-8).

According to what we have just said, the fight for joy is a fight for truth and a fight to understand that truth. Thus, such a fight involves wisdom. We need wisdom to be able to see the value in the various trials that we face as believers, wisdom to see that the lessons are worth the pain, wisdom to see beyond this life into the one yet to come. But where can we get such wisdom? James tells us with his second exhortation. Look at verses 5-8. James commands us to ask the Lord for wisdom with faith. We cannot ask with perpetual, consistent doubt. This is more than the doubt and uncertainty with which we all struggle for James goes on to describe it as double-minded. Again, to pray for wisdom and to constantly doubt God’s ability or willingness to give it is ‘spiritual schizophrenia.’ We must pray with faith.

What must we believe? In this context, we must believe that God gives generously to all without reproach. Unlike the double-minded man, God is straightforward, or simple, in His giving. He does not play favorites or withhold wisdom from those who ask. Thus, James’ theology, what he believes about God, fuels his exhortation for us to ask for wisdom. If we truly believe that God gives generously to those who ask Him for wisdom, then we will ask. If we refuse to ask, then it could be because our theology is off. Once again the imperative is built upon the indicative. We ask for wisdom because we know that God is a God who will give us what we need.

Third, we can have hope in the face of poverty (or riches) (v. 9-11).

James, in typical letter fashion, moves from idea to idea rapidly. Since they follow on the verses that we have just read, I think we can say that James is possibly giving us a particular trial, or trials, in verses 9-11. Look at those with me. James addresses the lowly, or poor, brother and exhorts him to boast in his exaltation. Although it is tough to know exactly what James is referring to here, he is probably referencing the great inheritance that we have in Christ. In other words, a believer may be poor and lowly in this life, but a future exaltation awaits. But the real difficulty in this passage is whether or not James sees the rich person as a brother as well. Either way, he is offering a warning to the rich: wealth does not last. It is temporary and fleeting. Just like a flower of the grass, which withers away under the scorching sun, so will the rich man fade away even in the midst of his pursuits. Think about this description. Picture a man doing all that he can to secure money and wealth. He spends night and day trying to make more money. His life is consumed by it. He keeps thinking: ‘Just a little bit more and we will have enough.’ And in the middle of his fight for more, he drops dead from a heart attack. Everything he has pursued, everything he has given his life for, all the wealth that he has amassed, becomes meaningless at that point. This is the warning that James is giving to the rich, believer or not. We must see wealth for what it is, namely a means to serve God and store up for ourselves treasures that will not rot.

And what does James build his exhortation on here? The simple answer is that he builds it on the future, or on our status with Christ. Because we have repented of our sins and placed our faith in the finished work of Christ, we know the truth about money: it is not permanent. Our future is not any more secure with or without money. It is secure in Christ. We can face the trial of poverty boasting in the exaltation to come. The inheritance and status that we have in Christ is not contingent upon our bank account. So even in the midst of poverty (or riches) we boast in what’s to come. Our eschatology (and soteriology again) fuels our boasting. It fuels our boasting in Christ and His promises to His people.

At least three exhortations are given to us in these first eleven verses: rejoice in our trials, ask for wisdom, and boast in our status with Christ. James builds each of these commands on doctrine. We rejoice in our trials because we know that we are being conformed into the image of Christ (soteriology). We ask for wisdom because we know that God generously gives to those who ask in faith (theology). And we boast in our status with Christ because we know what the future holds for followers of Jesus (eschatology). Our doctrine, or what we believe, gives us hope in the face of these difficulties. It fuels our hope. So then, I exhort you with James to rejoice in your trials and ask the Lord for wisdom and boast in your status with Christ. Yet, do not approach these tasks with despair. Rather, believe in the Lord. Believe in the salvation that He is working in you even in the midst of your trials. Believe that He delights in doing good to you and giving you the wisdom that you need when you ask. Believe that a glorious inheritance awaits all those who trust in Christ. All of this comes together at the cross. Christ died to save us, to give us true wisdom, to free us from trusting in wealth, and to secure for us a heavenly home. Therefore, believe in Him and obey these commands with hope. Amen.

1 Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, PNTC (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), p. 63.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Sunday, 22 March 2009 )

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