The New Testament book of James is an intensely practical letter, focusing on how Christians should behave as we put the teachings of God’s Word into practice. Alistair Begg begins this message with a helpful overview of the whole epistle, then moves on to the book’s first theme: Trials occur in every life, but God enables believers to experience joy even in the midst of difficult circumstances.
Father, we thank you that we’re able now to turn our thoughts away from everything else and everyone else to you and to the Bible that you have given to us. We ask for your particular help that we might not do a disservice to its truth, either by our attitude or our demeanor or the words that we speak or think. Speak to us in the stillness of these moments, and be our teacher, Lord, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, as you would have detected, we are beginning this morning a new series of studies in this letter of James—a letter that is intensely practical, the kind of practical help that the people of God need in our everyday lives. We are made very quickly aware, as we read through these five chapters of James—and I hope that you might possibly read ahead and read the whole letter so that you’ll be prepared for things—but we’re made very quickly aware, when we do so, of the fact that God’s Word was not given to us, ultimately, that our knowledge might increase but rather that our lives might be changed. And the emphasis in this letter of James is not upon becoming Christians, but it is rather on behaving as Christians. And it is very, very important that those of us who would profess to be Christians would face up to these particular and pressing challenges. And they are challenging. I have read ahead, and I know.
It’s difficult for somebody who uses words as much as some of us do to be confronted by James’s teaching on the use and abuse of the tongue—the fact, he says, that it is really wrong that out of the same mouth in the same period of time should come both words that build people up and words that tear people down. I don’t know if that makes you wince at all; maybe you’re perfect. ’Cause the only perfect person is the one who’s perfect in their speech; you can read that in James chapter 3. Or are you tempted to play favorites with people, and particularly as it relates to church? If so, James chapter 2 is going to be distinctly uncomfortable for all of us.
In fact, it may prove to be a quite uncomfortable journey altogether, but in a way that will prove profoundly positive, forcing us to sit up in our seats—actually, forcing some of us, perhaps, to change our seats. It is amazing how such a “nontraditional” congregation such as Parkside—that designation has long faded into antiquity—but it is amazing how traditional we are, even in the way in which we sit down in this building Sunday by Sunday. You say, “Well, that’s easy for you to say, ’cause you never sit down.” I understand that. It’s not a judgment. It’s simply an observation.
You see, whenever faith doesn’t issue in love; whenever doctrine, however orthodox, is unrelated to the living of life; whenever we’re tempted to settle down for a kind of self-centered Christian experience that ignores the social and material needs of other people; or whenever our conduct doesn’t match the creed that we declare, then these five chapters—some 108 verses—have something to say to us that we disregard at our peril.
Now, when we read the Bible together, it obviously comes home to our hearts in different ways. We are, after all, individuals. But many of us would consider ourselves part of God’s family here at Parkside. And so, when we study the Bible together in this way, we would anticipate that God would speak to us not only as a family but also as a wider church family. And when we look together at this, we’re going to discover that there is far more imperative in it than there is indicative. You’ll remember the indicative tense indicates what is; the imperative tense has to do with exhortation and application. And you will find that in the 108 verses, there are some sixty imperatives that just jump out and punch their way out through the text, as it were, sometimes almost appearing to punch us on the nose. You may actually like to look for them all—not right now, but at your leisure. I can give you one or two—for example, verse 5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God.” That’s the kind of imperative statement. Verse 19: “My dear brothers, take note of this.” That’s imperative: “I want you to listen up,” he says. Verse 26: “I want you to shut up.” Verse 1 of chapter 2: “Don’t show favoritism.” And so it goes on—a whole host of them! They’re there to be discovered, and we will encounter them as we go.
Something that we ought to recognize is that we are all of us in this together. We’re all in this together. If you look at 3:2, he says, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers”—we shouldn’t add any more teachers, he says—“because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly,” and then notice what he says: “We all stumble in many ways.” There’s something a little disconcerting about that. There’s also something a little encouraging about it, isn’t there? In that we can say, “Well, we’re all in this class together. We’re all in the stumbling class. We might not all be the fastest runners, spiritually. We might not all be hitting for the fences. We may only be making a single every so often.” (I finished the Lou Gehrig book this past week. So we can put those analogies to bed for a long time now. We’ll move on to something else.) But we know this: that we’re all finally in the stumbling group. And I believe that God has something to say to us as the stumblers. “God’s word to stumblers.” Might be a good title for the series. I don’t know; I haven’t thought of one yet.
But God will speak to us, and in these early chapters and in these early months of 2007, it may well be that the Word of God through his servant James to his people here at Parkside will sound a little akin to the longing of Eliza Doolittle as she sings to Freddy in my favorite musical of all time—dating me horribly as an old custard—is My Fair Lady. I woke up this morning about four thirty, and I couldn’t remember where this song came from. About five o’clock, I asked my wife, “Does this come from The Sound of Music?” I was hoping dreadfully it wouldn’t; it’s not my favorite. And she said, “No, no, no, no. It comes from My Fair Lady.” And Eliza sings to Freddy, “Sing me no song, read me no rhyme! Don’t waste my time, show me!” She says, “I don’t want you to write me poems. I don’t want you to sing me songs. If you love me, show me.” That’s essentially the book of James. That’s what God is saying through his Word in James: “Don’t sing me no songs.” And we love to sing songs here, don’t we? We understand the importance of that. “Don’t read me no rhymes. Don’t waste my time. Show me.”
So in other words, if the book of James takes root in my life, in your life, in our lives, then there will be a visible impact on Parkside Church. In other words, our doctrine must inevitably find itself on display. Our faith must inevitably begin to function in a way that is unavoidable and difficult to miss.
For that reason, you see, it makes it distinctly challenging. This is not a walk around a gymnasium, pointing out the various exercise machines. This is an invitation to get on the exercise machines, and after a period of time for people to be able to come with tapes, as it were, and measure the various bits that you get measured, and for people to be able to say there is an observable difference in you, and directly as a result of becoming the “doers of the word” which is provided for us in these chapters.
Well, let’s get straight to the first verse, where James is introduced to us as the writer. “James,” he introduces himself. We can safely say that he is a brother of the Lord Jesus. I can detail that for you, but I won’t take time to do so. In which case, we might be tempted to say, “Well, why then, if he is the brother of Jesus, does he not introduce himself as the brother of Jesus?” Incidentally, there’s really only one person who could introduce himself as James without everybody saying, “James who?” “This is James from Jerusalem.” “Oh, really?” But you see, that would be like getting a phone call that says, “Hello, this is George from the White House.” Okay! Or, “This is Elizabeth from Buckingham Palace.” Okay! “This is James.” Okay!
Why not lay your credentials out? Why not lead with your best foot? Why not say, “Hey, this is James, the brother of Jesus”? Well, I think you know the answer to that; I’m pretty sure we’re right: because James understood that the wonder of his relationship with Jesus did not lie in the fact of them sharing the same birth mother. It was not a natural relationship that caused James to marvel. It was the miracle of God’s goodness to him in opening his eyes to understand that Jesus was the person he declared himself to be.
Now, we could do a lot of background on this, and we needn’t, but I’ll give it to you as just the broadest of outlines. John chapter 7, John tells us that the brothers of Jesus did not actually believe in him. It’s a fascinating statement: that many people were coming to believe in Jesus, but the folks who lived right next to him—who, if you like, snuggled with him in his bed when they were growing up—they didn’t believe in him. They did not believe him. First Corinthians 15, Paul, in his great chapter on the resurrection, points out that in one of the resurrection appearances, Jesus appeared specifically to James. And by the time you get to the writing of the history book—namely, Acts—in chapter 15, this James, the brother of Jesus, is at the very heart of the council of Jerusalem, where the folks of the Jerusalem church are hammering out the relationships between these Jewish believers and these gentile believers, and James is at the very core of calling for Christian unity in the whole experience.
James, if you like, is a wonderful illustration of what we studied some time ago in 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul says in verse 16, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.” Remember, we said there that what Paul is showing is that there is a magnificent change that is brought about in the person who comes to believe in Jesus. Until they come to believe in Jesus, they blow their own horn, they toot their own horn, they go their own way, they view things from a completely worldly perspective, and they don’t have any interest in these things. But when they are reconciled to God, they then no longer look at people the way they once did, and they no longer look at Jesus the way they once did. And that is essentially the testimony of James: “I no longer look at my brother the way I once did.”
No, you will notice how he introduces himself: he’s “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Look at how he heaps up the designations of Jesus: “Lord,” which is the word that was used when they translated the Old Testament into Greek, and they had to translate the unpronounceable word YHWH, and they translated it “Lord.” So, whenever you find in the New Testament “Lord,” it is not an expression of devotion; it is a designation of identity. And that’s what James says. He says, “I’m a servant of God and of the Lord.” And then “Jesus”—that is, Joshua, which means “God is salvation” or “God is Savior”—and “Christ,” which is “Anointed One” or “Messiah.” And notice what he is: he is a servant. A servant.
Isn’t it interesting how the service industry has gone down the tubes in the last twenty-five years in America? When I came here for the first time in 1972, probably the single most striking difference between Great Britain and America was the service that you received in America, whether it was in a petrol station or in a restaurant or wherever it was. It was so wonderfully welcoming! One may question the sincerity in certain instances, but nevertheless, it was much to be preferred to what had been left behind across the puddle. One doesn’t have to be an erudite student of interpersonal relationships to recognize that it ain’t what it once was. Servanthood is on the outs. Take even the way titles are given to people in the structures of business or academia. There’s an almost frenetic desire to make sure that everybody realizes you’re not a servant; you’re a manager, or a sub-manager, or an assistant assistant coach manager, or you are… you are! You know, you really are!
And look at what we discover James doing. He says, “My name’s James, and I am a servant of Jesus.” Do you know, if you’re a Christian, that’s your biggest deal? And mine too. You may be a servant carpenter, you may be a servant homeschool teacher, you may be a servant academic, you may be a servant mom, you may be a servant painter, you may be a servant whatever you are, but ultimately, your best piece on your résumé is this: “Audrey, Bill, Brenda, George, a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
And you know, even on our best days we’re unprofitable servants. Why would we be surprised by this? After all, the brother of Jesus would have paid attention to his brother and marveled at him when he said, “I didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.” And so James says, “Well, I can emulate my brother in that: ‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.’”
What about the readers? Well, they’re “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” What does this mean? Is this distinctly Jewish? Is this a letter just for Jewish folks? In which case, we would be hard-pressed to find any meaningful application after all this time and to a congregation such as this.
Well, we need to think it out, don’t we? I think we’d be helped by turning over two pages to the beginning of 1 Peter and to see the distinct similarity between Peter’s introduction and James’s introduction. They don’t use the same terminology explicitly, but it is pretty similar. Peter designates himself “an apostle of Jesus,” one who has been set apart and sent by Jesus. Who is he writing to? Well, he’s writing “to God’s elect.” Who are they? Well, they’re “strangers in the world.” Where are they? Well, they’re “scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia,” and so on. And what is their distinguishing feature? Well, they all belong to “God the Father,” sprinkled by the blood of Jesus, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. And you turn back to James chapter 1, and he writes to these people, “the twelve tribes” who are “scattered among the nations.”
Now, I think that what James is doing here is simply exploding the term which was a comprehensive term for Israel itself—the Israel of God that had been redeemed out of the bondage of Egypt as a result of the shedding of blood; an Israel that had been scattered and was at this point in time scattered throughout the world as well. And every Jewish person looked to the possibility of their return to their homeland, and they always saw themselves in terms of their identity being directly linked to the Passover and to the prospect of their reunification—and the same is true today.
James takes this and he explodes it. And he includes in the terminology, it would seem, all, regardless of nationality, who trust in Christ as Savior. We have to wait till verse 18 to get the first real indication of this, where he says, in 1:18, the Father “chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” And then, you will notice, he begins chapter 2 addressing the “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”
And what we find, then, in these epistles, and expressly, again, back in 1 Peter—Peter, in chapter 2, picks up these Old Testament pictures and applies them directly to the variegated company of both Jew and gentile, where he says in verse 9, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
And so, in the same way as the Hebrew people would look and do look for a day when they might return to Jerusalem, so the believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are scattered throughout the world, anticipating the day of their own great homecoming. That’s why, you see, it is important for us, as nationalistic as we may be in our fervor—whether it be the land of our birth or our adopted home—to always remember that the Christian’s homeland is heaven, that our ultimate destination is there, and that the affairs of our world, as dramatic and as unsettling as they are, even in a week such as this, both internally within the nation and externally throughout the world—the only real way for us to gain any sense of sensibility to the vastness of it all is to take refuge in the designations that we have before us here. To recognize that we are those who are scattered throughout the world, but God knows that we’re scattered throughout the world, and that God has a plan to deal with the scattering.
We’ve been reading Matthew this week in our home, two of us. (There’s only two of us in it!) But this is what Jesus says: “And [then the Son of Man] will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from [the] one end of the heavens to the other.” If you ever sit and look up at the sky and imagine all the people in China, and all the people in India, and all the people in Pakistan, and all the people in Indonesia, and all the people all over the place everywhere, and you say, “How in the world are all these people who believe in Jesus all gonna get together in one tribe and company and nation and all sing the song of the Lamb?”—don’t worry about it. It’s not your to-do. But that’s God’s purpose. And when we see our place in the vastness of that scheme, then we have an understanding of how we fit. Just sitting yesterday in the airport, watching people come and go, it just could make me weep thinking about all these lives, just going here and there and everywhere. Well, I’m sure you feel the same.
Now, once he has identified himself and identified his recipients, he gets straight to the matter at hand. What he’s going to do now—and we can only dip into this, and it’s a start for us at least—but what he’s going to do now is to tell the redeemed people of God how to live in the world.
Well, that’s helpful, isn’t it? Here’s a letter to tell us how to live in the world. How are we supposed to live? How am I supposed to go to my work? How should I treat other people? How do I handle this? How do I handle that? And lest we should feel that he was taking a long time to get going, he launches right into the heart of things—confronts his readers with the disturbing and yet liberating fact that the display of the Christian faith is not revealed in some blissful, otherworldly experience but is revealed in the rough and tumble of everyday life.
Now, don’t let’s miss this: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, [when] you face trials of many kinds.” Or, as Phillips paraphrases it, “When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends!” “When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives…”
Let’s just be honest: our lives are crowded in upon by all kinds of trials and temptations. If that is not true, then we’re dead! If we’re alive, it’s true. We are not yet the completed picture. We are not yet in heaven. We’re in the middle of this situation. And living in this world places demands upon us and confronts us with challenges and buffets us in ways that are painful and sorrowful—confronts us with things that bring failure and tears, doubts and disappointments, cries and groanings, trials and temptations. We are, as we’ve said before, a congregation that turns to the Bible Sunday by Sunday, and our lives are largely marked by quiet desperation. Hardship and difficulty, trouble, various forms of suffering come to all of us at some time or another.
One of the greatest illusions of life is this: to look at another person—and I don’t care who the person is; any person—and think, “I wish I was her. She’s obviously got it down.” Or, “What does he know about this?” If ever—if ever—we were to start at any point in this room and just share one area—one area—of trial or temptation, we would be here for a solid month of Sundays before we completed the project. I don’t need to go beyond my own heart to tell you that, and thirty-plus years of pastoral life have introduced me to it on every front. We all face trials and temptations that are variegated; the word in Greek is multicolored. They come at us whenever, wherever, in all kinds of ways.
And we are all in this class. There’s no exemption from this class! You cannot pass out of this class. You can’t say, “Oh, yeah, I did that. I don’t need to take that in this course.” No, you never get out of this course. That’s my experience. Just when you think you’ve finished one, bam! You get another one. And the world says to you, deny it, conceal it, shoo it away. Maybe it’ll run off and leave you. Or deny that it has an impact on you. Live above it, or choose to go beyond it, or whatever it might be, or resent it and grow bitter, as if a horrible intruder had come into your house and simply scattered everything all around and run away and left you desolate. But no, what does James say? “Consider it unalloyed joy—consider it pure joy—when you face trials of various kinds.”
How can this possibly be? This seems to be an absolute contradiction, doesn’t it? Joy, trials. Most of our contemporary life is lived trying to deal with life in such a way that we don’t have to have trials. And if we can avoid trials, then we’ll have joy. But if we have trials, we can’t possibly have joy. Therefore, we’ve gotta get rid of these trials in some way so that we can get on with joy. James says, “No. If you want to know pure, unadulterated joy, then you will find it in your trials.” What?
You see, when this begins to infect a life or a congregation, then we’ll have a very different impact on Cleveland. Very different! You see, because people are so used to the Christian success story. They’re so used to the Christian overcoming story. They’re so used to the beautiful people story. So that the unsuccessful, nonbeautiful, non-overcomers, they say, “Well, there’s no point in going in there. Those people have it all together.” Why do they think that? Because we don’t tell the truth. Because we have one of the finest cover-up societies known to man. And we baptize it with Christian orthodoxy. Because if we were ever to admit the sorry mess that we really are, then maybe that would magnify the wonder of who God really is and draw people to God rather than to us.
Now, I know you think all kinds of things, I’m sure. But I for a long time now have imagined everybody that I see with a wheelbarrow. I’ve told you this before. And I have a wheelbarrow too. And when you see me, you can think of me and my wheelbarrow. And I have stuff in my wheelbarrow. I may have it hitched to the back of my car. You may like my car, you may hate my car, but I have a wheelbarrow. And in that wheelbarrow I have trials and temptations and fears and failures and disappointments and heartaches and longings. I don’t wake at three o’clock in the morning just to think about the soccer scores from England, and neither do you. We are all in this together.
And, says James, the way in which you can count it joy is not by moving yourself into a citadel that is absent from the trouble but is by your attitude in the trouble. And how do we do it? Well, look at verse 3: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” Why would I do that? Verse 3, here comes the answer: “Because you know…” Because you know! In other words, we have to bring how we feel under the dictate of what we know. If we continue to put what we know under the proviso of how we feel, then we will make all of our knowings subservient to our feelings. But isn’t this true in so many areas of life? I think it is.
Now, we’ll come back to this; we need to stop. But you’ll see that there is a progression. Because you know what? Well, “You know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” Faith by itself does not develop perseverance. It is only faith when it is tested. I could take my jacket off and show you my biceps, but I don’t think that would be good. Humility forbids it. But the fact of the matter is, it would be a sorry spectacle. Because unless you stress those things out—unless you test them—they atrophy. They just go away. And faith becomes significant under stress. So the very things that we seek to avoid are the very things that make us. The Puritans had it right: trials come to make us and to remake us. In shunning trials, we miss blessings.
That’s what James is saying. “Consider it pure joy when you face trials of various kinds.” When whatever it is—we don’t need to go into all the details of it. Whatever it might be! Different from one to another, but all of us understand it. Whenever you face that, consider it pure joy, because you know that now you have a chance to turn this tiny little muscle into something of significance. And when the testing is significant and is succeeded upon, perseverance is produced, and it is perseverance that gives way to maturity.
Take, for example, one illustration, and we’ll finish. We say the Apostles’ Creed together from time to time. How does it begin? “I believe in God the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth.” “I believe in God the Father.” That’s what we say. But you know, we don’t really know that we believe in God as our Father until the day when everything collapses around us. Until the day when it seems that his fatherly care has been removed from us. Until the day when it appears that he doesn’t even hear our prayers, let alone answer our prayers. Until the day when it is faith with the lights out. Until the day when it is faith in the waiting room. Then we discover whether we believe that he is Father.
When you hear the phrase “Abba, Father,” I bet most of you think first of all about a song and secondly about some kind of exultant response—you know: “Abba, Father, oh, yes!” You know, “Daddy, oh…” You know, sort of very strong and emotional, and just sort of rising up on the crest of it all. But in actual fact, Romans chapter 8 is all about suffering. It’s all about suffering. And it is out of the experience of suffering that Paul says, “And this is the wonder of it, that in the experience of that you would ever cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’”
You see, unbelieving people cry out, “Oh God, what do you think you’re doing? God, I tell you…” The Christian person, through all of the pains, when they can’t pray, says, “Oh Father! My Father!” And sometimes that’s all. Sometimes that’s the whole prayer, all you can get out: “Father!” That is one of the indications of the reality of saving faith—that one word! Small wonder that Jesus told the Pharisees, “I have no interest in your convoluted, lengthy prayers, all of your shambles and your shibboleths. When you pray, say…”
I have a strong sense that God desires to do something in Parkside Church along these lines—and it’s a scary prospect, actually. You would never want to be the teacher. You should never want to be the teacher. ’Cause you have to study it. Sleep with it. Be confronted by it. Preach it in front of your wife. She nudges you. You know, she knows. And then there’s everybody else.
Well, but we will go on, shall we? Yes, we will.
Let us pray together.
Small wonder that James writes, “Let not many of you become teachers, for those who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
Lord, we come to you this morning, pushing the wheelbarrows of our trials and our temptations. And we pray that you will sow within us the seeds of reality, the reality about which James writes here: the joy that comes by not denying their existence or running from them or hiding them but in recognizing that it is down this very road of sadness and pain and disappointment, and often fear and discouragement, that you fashion in your people the things that make us useful to others that we meet, who are surprised that we even have a wheelbarrow and that we would even have anything in it.
Forgive us, Lord, for presenting a front and a face to the community that suggests that this would be a nice place to come if you’ve got your act together, but not until. And we marvel that you took us when we were such a mess. In fact, if you had waited for us to be in a position where we would ever have been deemed acceptable to you, then, of course, we could never have come.
But we thank you for your amazing and redeeming love. And may your grace and your mercy and your peace rest upon your people, now and forevermore. Amen.
 See James 3:10.
 See James 3:2.
 James 1:26 (paraphrased).
 James 3:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 Alan Jay Lerner, “Show Me” (1956).
 James 1:22 (KJV).
 See John 7:5.
 See 1 Corinthians 15:7.
 See Acts 15:13–19.
 Matthew 20:28 (paraphrased). See also Mark 10:45.
 1 Peter 1:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 James 2:1 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 24:31 (NIV 1984).
 See Revelation 7:9–10.
 James 1:2 (NIV 1984).
 See Romans 8:15.
 Matthew 6:7–9 (paraphrased).
 James 3:1 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2020, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.