Before we start proper, a little test: what has this picture [ a picture of camel knees] got to do with our subject today?
James, one of the half-brothers of Jesus, was known as ‘camel knees’ is the author of this book. He was writing to ‘the twelve tribes of the Dispersion’. Most take this to be Jewish Christians scattered around the globe at a time when the world was dominated by the Romans and Roman law favoured the rich over the poor. All this a few decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The book has had a mixed reception. Luther thought it was ‘a right strawy epistle’ - there was nothing of the gospel in it and it seemed to contradict Paul’s teaching on faith.
But James is a book of wisdom, it is the proverbs of the NT.
His concern is that we should be like his half-brother Jesus: in what we do and what we say.
The structure of the book of James is complicated it has been described as having a ‘structureless structure’.
The first two chapters contain many insights and then some of the these points are taken up in the rest of the book:
“James addresses the pride of the rich, the persecution of the church and pay withheld by the rich. He also addresses those tempted to retaliate with violent acts or words. He responds with a call to wisdom, faith and patient endurance.”
The outline shows how these issues are outlined in the start of his epistle and then dealt with in more detail later.
James was around when his eldest half-brother Jesus was growing up, he got to know him and what he was like. He was around when Jesus was resurrected and he was part of the first Church in Acts 2. And yet here he is writing to a church that seems to be divided, divided between the haves and the have nots, the rich and the poor, the oppressed and the oppressors, a far cry from the apparent egalitarianism, where each had everything in common of the first few days of the church in Acts.
He is not writing a theological treatise but admonition and encouragement.
Some maintain that Paul and James have different messages - they are contradictory. This was the position of Martin Luther and the main reason why he didn’t like the book of James, it appeared to be contradicting the message of the reformation: faith alone saves.
Compare these two verses:
Rom 3:28 and James 2:24
Before we stat to try and unravel this knotty problem let’s take a step back and I want you to do a little work:
I want you to think about these questions:
- What do we have to believe to be saved?
- Is there some minimum set of beliefs?
- What are they?
- Can we do what we like and be saved?
- Are there some minimum set of behaviors that we must do to be saved?
- What are they?
These are the issue that James is addressing - though he doesn’t mention Gumbel by name! The issues are contemporary ones.
Some say only beliefs matter, others say that it doesn’t matter as long as you are living well.
Part of the problem is the green house effect.
If I say ‘Look at that green house’. What do you expect to see?
A greenhouse (one made of glass) or a green house (one painted green) or a green house (one made so it is sustainable)?
The same words can mean different things.
James is using the word faith in a different way to Paul. They are both using the word deeds/ works in different ways. They are dealing with different issues, different contexts and have different emphases.
James may well have been reacting to a form of Jewish piety that wanted a revolution against the Romans, who were dominating the world at the time.
James is not talking about saving faith, but the faith that is lived out because we are saved.
In verse 14 he poses a question – James is good at asking questions, this book is full of rhetorical questions.
In verses 15-16 he uses an illustration – again James is full of illustrations.
Then in verses 17 -18 he summarises his position.
So, for James how do faith and deeds relate?
Faith leads to deeds and deeds arise from faith.
James is not against faith. He is warning against faith as a set of propositions to be believed that has no effect on what we do.
In James the noun ‘faith’ is used 16 times – only five times outside this passage. In the five times outside this passage it is used positively. But it is never used as an intellectual agreement to a set of propositions.
The great tightrope walker Blondin, walked across a tigtrope over the Niagra Falls. First with a balancing pole, then without it, then sometimes he would stop and cook and eat an omelette, or he would do it with someone on his back.
In 1860 the Duke of Newcastle came to watch him.
Blondin asked him, do you believe I can take a man over the tightrope in this wheelbarrow.
Yes I do, replied the Duke. Hop in! Said Blondin.
The crowd went silent, but the Duke declined the offer.
An old woman came forward and climbed in to the wheelbarrow. It was Blondin's mother.
Who had faith in Blondin?
Faith is not merely intellectual assent, it is putting our trust – and lives - in Jesus' hands. This is the sort of faith that James is talking about.
In verse 19 he pulls no punches; if faith is just a set of beliefs to be believed then what about the demons? They believe too!
James than uses two more illustrations; Abraham and Rahab. Both showed their faith by their actions.
Paul is right – it is by faith in Jesus that we are saved – by faith alone, but faith is never alone, James is also right it is accompanied by deeds.
Gordon Spykman sums it up well:
‘We are indeed justified by faith alone. But faith does not remain alone. It works.’