Sermon --- Sunday, 07-May-2006

 

Peter Flowers, Elder, Bethel Evangelical Free Church

 

The Message of James (1)

The Testing of Faith (1):  James 1:1-11

 

 

One of the greatest of the Puritans was the Scottish minister Thomas Boston, who lived during the early 1700s.  He labored in the little parish of Ettrick, Scotland, which is nestled in the hills near the border between Scotland and England.  Boston, a godly minister, a devout man and a great theologian, is best known today for his book Human Nature in Its Fourfold State.  This book (as my wife will testify) is, outside the Bible, my favorite of all books.

 

Boston kept a sort of memoir or diary which was published after his death.  In it we find the following remark:

 

It pleased the Lord, for my further trial, to remove by death, on the 8th September 1707, my son Ebenezer.  Before that event, I was much helped of the Lord; I had never more confidence with God in any such case than in that child’s being the Lord’s.  I had indeed more than ordinarily, in giving him away to the Lord, to be saved by the blood of Jesus Christ.  But his death was exceeding afflicting to me, and matter of sharp exercise.  [Banner of Truth, 1988, p. 217.]

 

Afflictions – and even exceeding afflictions– are experienced by everyone.  We Christians, of course, know why everyone faces afflictions.  God tells us why in his speech to Adam in the third chapter of Genesis:  

 

Cursed is the ground because of you;
   in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
   and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
   you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
   for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
   and to dust you shall return."
  [Genesis 3:17b-19]

 

These words, as we know, are literally true.  In pain men and women all go through their lives, and to dust the all shall return.

 

Yes, but what about Christians?  Must we, also deal with severe trials, with extreme afflictions?  The example of Thomas Boston – and of many other godly men and women – should lead us to expect this to be true.  But we don’t just have to look at examples from history – we can look in the word of God and find the answer. 

 

Last week Elder Ron finished up his study on Daniel.  This morning we start a new study, this time in the New Testament.  Elder Ron and I will be sharing in this study, which will take us several months, and the subject we have chosen is the Epistle of James.  James, as we shall be learning, is a practical, down to earth book.  The key theme, which James hammers home again and again, is that we cannot separate our faith in Jesus Christ from our practice.  Any attempt to do so, he warns us, leads to a stunted, fruitless, pointless shadow of real faith.

 

This morning I will start the series by examining part of the first unit of thought, which may be found in James, chapter one, verses 1 through 11.  And you will find in this passage the answer to the question posed a minute ago – must Christians, also, deal with troubles and trials?  Here is what James has to say to us:

James 1

 1 James, a servant[a] of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

   To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:

   Greetings.

 2 Count it all joy, my brothers,[b] when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

 9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass[c] he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

 

[Prayer for enlightenment]

 

 

In these verses James opens up the theme of the testing of faith.  After a brief greeting, James in the first paragraph (verses 2 to 4) tells us that trials and troubles bring their own kind of joy. 

 

In the next paragraph, verses 5 to 8, James shows us that there is a relationship between faith and wisdom.  If our faith is faint, then we must not expect the Lord suddenly to provide us with insight.

 

In the third paragraph, verses 9 through 11, James addresses the problem of wealth and poverty.  Wealth and poverty, he says, are trials and tests even for the believer.

 

Over this week and next week we will examine these matters in some detail.  This week I will introduce the epistle, and then look in more detail at the first paragraph, in which James commands us to count it as joy when we face trials and troubles.  Next week I shall open up James’s points about wisdom and doubt, poverty and wealth.

Introduction – who is James?

Let us begin by looking at the introduction to the epistle found in verse 1.  The author identifies himself as James but otherwise only identifies himself as a servant of God and Jesus Christ. Most commentators believe that this James is the half brother of Jesus himself.  When you hear that he is one of Jesus’ half brothers, you perhaps will recall what John tells us about the half brothers in John 7:5:  “even his brothers had no faith in him.” 

 

But God gave special grace to James, for after the Resurrection Jesus appeared to him.  We know this because of what Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:7.  In this part of 1 Corinthians Paul is discussing the resurrection appearances of Jesus.  Those appearances culminated in this way: “Last of all he appeared to me [Paul] too; it was like a sudden, abnormal birth” (v. 8). But before this final appearance, Paul tells us that Jesus “appeared to over five hundred of our brothers at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  Then he appeared to James, and afterwards to all the apostles” (vv. 6-7).  So James, although a doubter in his brother, and not an apostle, nevertheless received a personal visit from Jesus.

 

The Bible does not tell us the details of that visit, but we can definitely see its results!  For James, we learn from Acts, became one of the principal elders in the church of Jerusalem.  You will recall that it was James who presided over the council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15.  This council was called to evaluate Paul’s approach to the Gentiles.  It is James who summed up the decision of the council in a masterful and decisive manner:  “In my judgement, therefore, we should impose no irksome restrictions on those of the Gentiles who are turning to God” [Acts 15:16]. 

 

So this is the James who wrote our epistle, the one who tells us to count it all joy when we meet trials.  Was his life a life without trial, without trouble?  I think not.  He was martyred in 62 A. D. by being thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple.

 

James tells us in verse 1 that he is a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The word translated as servant is doulos, bondslave or bondservant.  James was the brother of Jesus, but, he is telling us, this does not give him a special, lordly role.  Rather, he, like us, is a servant, even a slave, in the service of his master.  And let us not that his master is not simply identified as God.  Rather, James unmistakably identifies himself as a slave of God who is, by apposition, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is saying that Jesus has the same authority over him as God does.  How far James has come from his initial doubt – how much he must have learned and experienced when Jesus appeared to him!

The twelve tribes of the Dispersion (diaspora)

James then tells us to whom this epistle is addressed:  it is to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.”  What does this mean?  Well, the word diaspora (dispersion) had come to mean the dispersed Jews – dispersed by the exile from the northern kingdom, then from the southern kingdom by the exile to Babylon, and then by the long grueling course of history.  You will recall that during our recent sermon series on the prophecies found in Daniel, Elder Ron mentioned that Palestine would be a battlefield over and over again.  During the centuries between the Babylonian exile and the time of Christ, the Jews had become dispersed all over the known world of the day.

 

But when you read the entire epistle, it does not seem to be directed only to Jewish Christians.  Indeed, the content of the epistle seem as relevant today to contemporary Christians as it would have been in the first century.

 

So the word diaspora, the dispersion, probably does not mean that this is written specifically to Jewish Christians.  Rather, it means that it is written to the new twelve tribes, which is the church of Christ.  Paul called the church “the Israel of God” in Gal 6:16.  The church is the true successor to the twelve tribes.  We, the church, today are the possessors of the covenant promises.  Originally in history those promises were made by God to a small tribe, the least of all tribes, but now those promises and gifts are available to all peoples in all corners of the world through the church.

 

Bearing this in mind then – that James is addressing this letter to us, as members of the church which proclaims Jesus as Messiah throughout the world – let us turn to the first paragraph, verses 2 through 4, in which he deals with trials and troubles and afflictions.

Outline

The three verses of the first paragraph form three simple and natural points.

 

First, we are to rejoice in facing trials (verse 2).

 

Next, a tested faith produces steadfastness (verse 3).

 

Finally, a steadfast faith produces a perfect and complete disciple (verse 4).

Rejoice in our trials (verse 2)

So first, then, let us examine what James tells us in verse 2.  “Count it all joy, my brothers,” he tells us, “when you meet trials of various kinds.”  We are, he says, to rejoice in facing trials.

 

Well, here we are at the very beginning of our new sermon series – sermon one out of many – and already we are shaking our heads and muttering to ourselves. “What is he asking of us?  This is a command – it is imperative – is he telling us that when we have trials our emotional experience is to be joy?  Doesn’t he know that trials or afflictions bring grief and sorrow, nausea and anxiety, not joy?  Am I supposed to try to pump myself up into a completely false sense of gladness when I am filled with sadness?”

 

If you are asking questions like this, you are not alone – one commentator says that this verse is irrational and paradoxical.

 

Now I think we should be concerned when the words of Jesus’ half brother, preserved for us in the Bible, are called irrational and paradoxical.  So let us ask – is James commanding the irrational and impossible of us?  And I think a close look at the text shows that he is not.  James is not saying “have an experience of joy” here.  He is not saying to Thomas Boston, “your young son died, so, Thomas, what is in your heart is this emotion we call joy, an emotion of exaltation and great happiness.”  He is NOT telling us that we are to work ourselves somehow into this kind of emotion.

 

What he is telling us is that we need to develop an attitude.  What we need to do is to develop an attitude of reflective, thoughtful response to our trials.  Trials and anxieties do bring distress, great emotional discomfort, the kind of anxiety or sorrow which wakes you up in the middle of the night as if from a nightmare.  Those emotions are present, and as we all know, emotions generally are not something over which we have direct control.  But what is in our control is what James commands us to do:  we are to evaluate carefully these trials and afflictions, and we are to evaluate them in the context of who it is we desire to become in our walk with Jesus.

 

It is when we look at our trials in that context – who we want to be in our walk with Jesus – that we begin to see the kind of joy James wants for us.  James wants us to have the kind of exaltation that comes from knowing that even in the midst great afflictions, we are in a process by which our walk with Jesus is being perfected and brought to completion.

 

But is it really true?  Is it really true that an attitude of joyfulness can be developed?  Well, listen to what Jesus himself says in Matthew 5:11-12:  11"Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 

It does appear paradoxical that when we are reviled and persecuted and suffer all kinds of evil that we are to rejoice and be glad.  But notice what Jesus goes on to say:  this joy comes from a consideration of what these sufferings show about our relationship to God – our reward will be great in heaven!  What a blessing! 

 

I think we can summarize this point by saying that the mature person looks beyond the short term distress to the long term results.  The short term distress is, obviously, distressing.  We wouldn’t call it distress if it weren’t!  But when we meditate on the long view, we see within ourselves a shift in our attitude.  Our attitude becomes one of saying, yes, I am in distress, yes, I am suffering, but I see beyond these afflictions to the promises that my reward will be great in heaven.  These considerations mitigate the distress and even cause me to find joy in the midst of that distress.

 

Did you notice that immediately after commanding us to count these trials as all joy, James addresses us as “my brothers”?  We should note here that the attitude being commended is really available only to Christians.  This is because the hope we have is based solely on the truthfulness and graciousness of Jesus.  Worldly people, who do not know Jesus, cannot adopt this attitude. 

 

Oh, yes, there is a sort of stoic mentality which tries to rise above the afflictions people face – for people in the world face afflictions just as much as Christians do.  This sort of stoic philosophy says “I can rise above this distress by … .”  By what?  By zen meditation?  By spiritual detatchment?  By somehow developing indifference and distance from all our affections in this life?  What sort of hope lies in that?  What is the hope which the non-Christian has?  The answer, of course, is that the non-Christian does not really have hope.  So his stoical detachment is at heart false.  In contrast, the Christian has true hope.

 

That such true hope is the fundamental root to our joy in trials is very clearly stated by Paul in Romans 5:3-5.  Paul says:  3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

 

Do you see what Paul is telling us?  At the end, our rejoicing in our sufferings is based on a real hope, not a false hope.  This hope is based on truth, which is why it does not put us to shame.  And the hope is certain because it is poured into us by the Holy Spirit.  So this attitude of joy is a command to us, but also is founded on the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.  And this, in the end, is why only Christians truly can know joy even in the midst of suffering and tribulations.

 

Now in verse 2 James assures us that we will meet trials.  The word used here for “meet” – we will “meet trials” -- is used by Jesus in Luke 10:30, in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers.”  That word is the same word.  We fall among trials.  I think that we can be assured, then, that we will not avoid trials, even though we are brothers, we are real Christians.  As we walk down the road of this life, we will fall among trials, and they will strip us and beat us and leave us half dead.  Yet, nevertheless, we are to cultivate an attitude of joy, because we know what our hope is and we know what we hope ourselves to become..

 

What kinds of trials are in James’s mind here?  Just glancing ahead in this epistle shows us several.  For example, in the next few verses James discusses one sort of trial, financial trouble.  Poverty is as we know a very serious trial which causes immense anxiety and distress.  But so is wealth a trial, an affliction in its own way, as we also shall see when we look at these verses next week.  Looking further ahead in this epistle, in chapter 2 we find people being oppressed and persecuted.  In chapter 4 we find people embroiled in fights and quarrels and all kinds of bitterness.  In chapter 5 we find people who are suffering and sick.  I do not think this list is exhaustive.  Each one of us here today has experienced trials and will experience more, yes, even the pain of death (unless the Lord comes first).  Yes, even Christians experience and will experience many trials.

Tested faith is steadfast (verse 3)

Let us turn to the second point in this paragraph, which is that tested faith leads to steadfastness.  James continues this way in verse 3:  “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”  Here we are beginning to learn what it is about trials that leads us to the hope which Paul mentioned.

 

The verse begins with the preposition “for.”  For you know.  The word “for” tells us that James is not satisfied merely to give us the command to have an attitude of joy.  No, he is going to provide support for what he has said, he wants us to understand how this can come about. 

 

The support he provides is, he says, related to our faith.  The fact that he starts with our faith reminds us that we do not go into our trials empty handed.  No, we have a foundation upon which we build our response.  We have faith in Jesus, in our salvation, in all the promises of the gospel.  Because we have faith, we have hope.  And again this is unlike people who do not know Christ – they suffer the trials, they suffer many afflictions, but they do not have faith, and so they do not have any groundwork or foundation on which to develop a response to affliction.

 

The word in verse 3 translated by “testing” is a word that was used to describe the process by which silver or gold was refined by fire (Moo, Tyndale NTC, p. 60).  So James is telling us that our faith is refined by adversities and trials, as silver and gold is refined by fire

 

James says something interesting about this statement, that the testing or refining of our faith produces steadfastness.  He tells us that we know this.  That this testing produces steadfastness is a fact.  It is not an opinion or a guess, but rather is a knowable truth.  And the question that poses to each of us is this:  do we know this?  Is this truth something we have in our hearts?  When we find our faith tested, do we lean on the sure knowledge, founded in the utter veracity of God, that this testing will build our steadfastness and our perseverance?  Or do we instead waver, and doubt?  Let each of us take comfort from the fact that we can know and do know this truth, so that we can lean on it when we are experiencing distressing trials.

 

What is the product of this testing, this refining?  The word is hupomone.  It is translated as “perseverance” by the NIV, “strength to endure” by the Revised English Bible, and “steadfastness” by the English Standard Version.  The word also appears in Romans 5:3, to which I alluded a minute ago.  There the English Standard Version translates it “endurance.”  William Barclay describes the concept in this way:  “it is not simply the ability to bear things; it is the ability to turn them to greatness and to glory.  It is the quality which makes a man able, not simply to suffer things, but to vanquish them” (Barclay, James, p.43). 

 

So you can see what the all translations are trying to get at – what this testing of our faith produces is a steadfast, unswerving constancy, which turns difficulties into triumphs.  As our steadfastness gains more strength, we are better able to deal with our afflictions.  But as our steadfastness gains in strength, we also gain in assurance that our faith has not been in vain – from our faith we gain strength, and from our strength we gain more assurance of the validity and firmness of our faith.

Steadfast faith produces a perfect and complete disciple (verse 4)

But James is not content to stop with our knowing that this testing will strengthen us, helpful though that may be.  Rather, in the third paint of this paragraph, he wants us to understand what the goal, the end of this testing is.

 

In verse 4 he says:  “And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

 

Here is another imperative.  This is not just something which is nice to know.  No, this is a command.  You, Peter, you, Ron, you, fellow disciple – each one of us – we are commanded to develop this character of steadfastness or constancy until we achieve its full effect, until we reach its end. 

 

James says we are to do this in order that we may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.  What does he mean?

 

The word used for “perfect” is a word which describes when something has reached the complete accomplishment of the end for which the thing is intended.  For example, when we say that an apple is perfect in this sense, we mean that it has all the full development of everything about an apple which makes it the best possible apple. 

 

In the context of this verse, I think we could interpret such perfection in two ways, and I suspect that James intends us to think of them both. 

 

First, for the Christian to fully reach the end of the testing of his faith, to reach that goal, could mean to achieve a fullness of character and assurance which is unswayed by trials, afflictions and tribulations.  We call this kind of character “mature” – such a person is really mature, not driven around by childish or unformed or incomplete opinions or sudden impulses.  And so the NIV, quite rightly I think, interprets the word to mean “mature.”

 

But, second, the word also could literally mean perfect – perfect in the sense of the kind of perfection for which we yearn in this life but know we fall short of.  This is the kind of perfection found in God.  Jesus himself points us to this perfection as a goal in Matthew 5:48.  He says to his disciples:  You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

 

Now, this kind of perfection, the kind which Jesus urges us towards, is never achieved by us in this life.  This is noted, for example, by Paul in Philippians.  In Phil 3.12 he says of himself (and implicitly of all believers):  “not that I am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

 

But the fact that achieving perfection after the pattern of Christ is still a goal – that we are striving towards it but have not yet fully reached it -- should not make us stop struggling towards it!   I am afraid that I see in myself a characteristic of wanting to give up a struggle if I don’t get the thing I want quickly.  So when James urges us towards “perfection” in this second sense, he is urging us to not grow faint and weary.  Rather, he tells us to see our trials as part of the pattern of learning, striving, and experience which leads us towards making Christ Jesus more and more our own.  The result will be that we become more and more like our perfect heavenly Father.

 

James then gives us another characteristic in our character which comes about when the “full effect” of our steadfastness is achieved.  This is that we become “complete.”  The word used for complete means entire, perfect in every part.  “It is used of the animal which is fit to be offered to God and of the priest who is fit to serve him” (Barclay, James, p. 44).

 

So another goal of our trials and afflictions, another goal of this increasing steadfastness and constancy, is that we may become complete in every part.  It is not God’s intention that only some parts of our character be very well developed.  Rather, we are to be so fully realized that we are suitable in all angles to be of service to God.  This is what James means when he adds that the fully realized person will be “lacking in nothing.”  There will be no element of that person’s character which will make him unfit to be a noble representative of Jesus.

 

For example, I might say many trials at work have taught me to press on, to not become faint and weary, even when a project on which I am working is troubled.  But God replies, that is good, Peter.  It is excellent to persevere at work.  But you know what?  There is more to you than that one characteristic.  There is still much in your character that I am working on.  I see lots of dimensions of life to which your responses are immature or unthinking or negative.  So I am going to send you some trials and afflictions so that you may learn to handle those things as well. 

 

I think it is even fair to say, on the basis of this verse, that when we are undergoing trials and afflictions, we should ask, what part of my character is not complete?  What is it in my response to situations which God is trying to shape and mould so that I will become more rounded, more fully realized?

 

Do you recall what Paul said in Romans 5:4, which I quoted a moment ago?  He said that suffering produces endurance, and endurance character.  This is exactly what James says here.  Our sufferings and our trials and our afflictions work, in God’s providence, through our faith, to the development of a more fully realized, more rounded Christian character, one which the world does not understand.

 

But Paul goes on to tell us something which will encourage us even more.  And this is that the development of our character increases our hope.  This is Christian hope, of course – not a worldly wishing to win a lottery ticket and get something for nothing, but rather a hope founded in the certain knowledge of the character of God. 

Conclusion

This then is the dynamic of our experience which James has described:  we start as Christians, perhaps with a wavering faith, but nevertheless with faith.  We trust Jesus; we know he is true; we know that in him we see God almighty.  And when we suffer trials and tribulations and afflictions, we rest on our faith to develop an attitude of joyfulness, of constancy which can withstand whatever pressures are thrown at us, because we know that we can trust Jesus and that trust will never be disappointed.

 

And what do we receive as a gift from God through this?  Yet more faith – yet more character – yet more roundedness and maturity – and yet more hope – hope for the present but above all a certain hope, an unfailing hope, for the life to come.

 

But if you are not a Christian, you really can know none of this.  All you can experience is the anguish, but none of the joy.  All you can know is that there is no hope, rather than experience the hope which lies behind the joy.  If you are not a Christian, if you have not become Jesus’ disciple, you desperately need this joy and this hope.  And there is only one way to get that:  come to Jesus, come to know him, come to trust him, and come to see that all his promises are true.  For we know that his promises are true, for he has risen indeed.

 

As Christians, I think a wonderful expression of this experience of afflictions which then is overtaken by faith can be found in a passage written long ago by the prophet Jeremiah.  This passage comes from his Lamentations over the fall of Jerusalem.  I think it is possible you will find it familiar.  Here is what Jeremiah says in Lamentations 3:19-23:

19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
   the wormwood and the gall!
20 My soul continually remembers it
   and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
   and therefore I have hope:

22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;[a]
   his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness.

How appropriate this description is when we think back to Thomas Boston and his anguish at the death of his son Ebenezer.  How heavy was his affliction; his bitterness and agony were like wormwood and gall.  His soul could not forget his sorrow, and as he says in a Scots phrase, was “sharply exercised,” that is, bowed down.

 

But he had hope – and we have hope – for this we call to mind – this defines and determines our attitude towards each and every trial:

 

22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;[a]
   his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness.

 

Amen.

 

Prayer of Thanksgiving for the Word