In Matthew 7, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the story of two houses. One was built on solid rock. The rains fell, the wind blew, the floods of life came, but that built on solid rock house stood firm. The other house was built on sand. The rains fell, the wind blew, the floods came, and, well, you know what happened to that house. The rain is falling, the wind is blowing, the floods are coming. What’s the house of your life built on? What is the condition of the house of your life?
We’re going to embark on a new series of “Bible Notes” in one of my favorite books in the New Testament—the letter of James. Here’s some background on this book.
The James who wrote this letter is not the apostle James, the brother of John, one of the sons of Zebedee. It is also not the apostle James, the son of Alpheus. In Matthew 13:55, we learn that Jesus had a brother named James. In Galatians 1:19, Paul tells us that the James who led the church in Jerusalem was “the Lord’s brother.” The James who wrote this book is that James.
The letter is clearly addressed to Christians. But James tells us specifically that it is addressed Jewish converts to Christianity—he calls them members of “the twelve tribes.” And these Jewish converts to whom he is writing are, he tells us, living in the diaspora. That is, they are living outside of Judea or Galilee, most likely living in the Gentile cities throughout the Roman Empire. In all likelihood this letter was meant to circulate among them.
What we will see as we work through this letter is that James is especially concerned to teach his readers about how to live as faithful disciples of Jesus in a very non-Christian, pagan culture. In that way, the people James was writing to were very much like us. We too are living in a mostly secular, non-Christian culture. We live among people most of whom are not disciples of Jesus. For that reason, I think we will find that the letter of James is very relevant to us and our situation. He will help us to learn to live as humble, loving witnesses to Jesus in a culture and a society that mostly doesn’t know Jesus.
So, let’s get started. Here are the first four verses of the letter:
1James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. 2Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. [NIV]
In the first verse, he tells us who the letter is from and who it is addressed to. We’ve already covered that. Then he immediately tells us something else about them and their situation that he thinks is very important, because that’s what he wants to talk about first. What is that important matter? They are facing trials and the testing of their faith. In verse 2 he refers to “trials of many kinds.”
The word James uses here is broad. It can refer to several different kinds of challenges to our faith and our faithfulness. It can refer to temptation to sin. A little later in the chapter he will use this same word in a context that is clearly about temptation to specific sins. We might think of things like lust that leads to sexual sin or greed that leads to miserliness or dishonesty with money or anger that can lead us to speak or act hurtfully toward another person. James is going to talk about these sins of the tongue a lot later in the book.
But the word is also sometimes used to talk about hardships or afflictions in life, circumstances that might lead us to doubt God and his faithfulness to us. It can even be used to refer to persecution because of our faith.
James, I think, means to be a bit general in what he says right here, because he wanted to include a wide range of various kinds of things that can challenge our faith.
Temptations to specific sins, yes. But also, more general hardships in life—things like financial hardships, health difficulties, pandemics, various trials and tribulations of life; and, yes, also persecution because of our faith in Jesus.
All of these things have the effect of pushing us toward being unfaithful to Jesus, pushing us toward a lack of trust in Jesus. Whether temptations or tribulations, these sorts of challenges are things we all can surely relate to.
James says that we should face these trials with joy. That seems a strange thing to say. Why would he say that? The trials and tribulations can show us what condition our faith is in.
In verse 3, James speaks of the “testing” of our faith. This word “testing” sounds like it could be the same thing as what James calls trials in verse 2, but James uses a different Greek word when we writes of “trials” than the one he uses to write about “testing.” When James writes about “testing,” he uses a word that you might use if you were talking about evaluating a lump of yellow metal to see whether it’s gold or something much less valuable.
He says that trials, tribulations, and temptations can serve as a testing of our faith to see what it’s made of. What happens to you when you face trials and tribulations and temptations? Do you get angry? Do you get depressed? Do you get frustrated and blame other people? Do you give up? Does it knock down your faith and trust in God? Does it take away your hope, your joy, your peace? Do you lash out at the people around you?
When trials and tribulations and temptations strike us, we need to look at ourselves and see what kind of reaction is being stirred in us. Take the measure of your faith in these times. What is revealed about you when you face trials and tribulations?
James wants us to build the house of our lives on the solid rock of obedient faith in Jesus Christ. Look to see if there are places in your life that are getting washed away by the floods and storms, the struggles of life. Ask God to build up your perseverance, so that you can become mature and complete in your faith, lacking nothing. As we study further into James’s letter, he will teach us more about how to do this.
(c) 2021 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.