Saturday, February 14, 2009

Faith that Works: The Treasure of Trials, pt 1 (James 1:1–3)

The idea of trials happening to Christians is something not every pulpit permits these days. It is a secret in some places, and in others it is denied, being covered up as "unbelief." There is no secret, however, in Scripture, that if you serve Christ you should prepare to suffer trials

A young teenager dove into the water and was paralyzed as a result of a tragic accident. After decades of using this platform to minister to others, Joni Erickson Tada was visiting a prominent pool in Jerusalem which in Biblical times had supposed healing properties. Instead of wanting to be healed, she thanked God for her paralysis, because without it she would have have had so many opportunities to share Jesus Christ and His love with people around the world.
A year ago or so I read a letter from a person who suffered from cancer. She not only was okay, but she praised God for allowing her to experience such growth and maturity through cancer, and wished everyone could experience such maturity. My first reaction was "no thanks." But think about it in light of James. If it were not for the events in life that cause us to cry out to God, where would you be spiritually?
The first question when looking at a book of the Bible is "what is the background." Why is that important? Context. Context is what makes the difference in interpreting Scripture. In English, for example, if you use the phrase "how does she run?" You could be referring to a woman running, a girl running, an engine, a faucet or sink, or many other options. The phrases before and after affect the meaning. So who was James? Who was his audience? When did he write this epistle?

The date and the author go hand in hand. There are 4 James mentioned in the NT. James the son of Alpheus, one of the twelve disciples (Mark 3:18). James the father of Judas (not Iscariot), one of the Twelve Disciples (Luke 6:16). The problem with these first two James is that they are not the likeliest candidate because they are not given much prominence after their catalog highlight. Another possibility is James the son of Zebedee, who was brother of John, and one of the three disciples in the inner circle of Jesus—the other two being John his brother and Peter. (Mk 1:19). Problems: He was martyred in AD 44 (Acts 12:2) and this letter was most likely written after AD 45, probably AD 48 (as the pew Bibles at FBC say) when believers were no longer only in Jerusalem but scattered because of Peter and Paul’s Missionary journeys. (Note: The letter was probably written before the Jerusalem council as well, in AD 49–50 mentioned in Acts 15, because it definitely should have been alluded to if it had happened). The fourth James is a likely possibility, who is James the brother of Jesus, first mentioned in Matthew 13:55 as half brother of Jesus.
What made this fourth James stand out? He has more appearances in a prominent role in the church of Jerusalem and amongst Paul's letters. Paul had a high regard for James, Jesus’ brother, because he visited only him and Peter in Jerusalem (Gal 1:19, Acts 9:26–30), after his conversion c. AD 33. James was an authoritative figure (Acts 12:17, 15:13 as leader of Jerusalem council in c. AD 49 on the role of works in salvation; 21:18, “James and the elders"). James grew up with Jesus, but did not believe his older brother was the Messiah, as John records (John 7:5, “For not even his brothers were believing in Him”). After Christ’s resurrection, the risen Jesus appeared to Peter and the disciples, then James, and then the apostles (1 Cor 15:7). So James saw Jesus risen from the dead—which most likely was what convince him that his half brother was the Messiah. We know James believed in his brother as Messiah, because Acts 1:14 records that Jesus’ brothers and mother were with the disciples after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, praying with them. What would it have been like to grow up with Jesus as an older brother? What a model of perfection to live up to! "James, Jesus would have had that done without all the complaining." "James, Jesus always cleans up his mess. Can't you be more like your brother?" How did James feel when He was crucified? If anyone knew Jesus, it would be James. If anyone could witness to the fact that Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life, it was James. If anyone experienced the full spectrum of how people respond to Jesus Christ it was James, who rejected Jesus and later was a sold out follower of Jesus. He became a strong pillar and leader of the church.
So, the James spoken of in Acts and by Paul as leader of the Jerusalem church, and who wrote this epistle was most likely the half brother of Jesus Christ. That is who we will be referring to as the author. Side note: Jude, another of Jesus’ brothers, wrote a book with his first name on it as well (before Revelation).
What was James' theology and his message? First, James leaned more towards the legalist Jewish believers than Paul did. He emphasized believers should do good works, though not for salvation. Later, James would be involved in the great debate that arose in Acts 15 where some believed “faith plus works” and others “faith without works” (the right one). You can see some of his emphasis towards faith producing good works in this letter. The Jews who believed Jesus to be their Messiah were divided. Some believed:
1. Have faith in Jesus for salvation, but still observe the entire Mosaic Law (circumcision, ten commandments, Sabbath rules, not eating unclean meat, etc). But the Law was not intended as a part of salvation, but as a covering until salvation. Doing the Law and saying you believe in Jesus is like people today saying, “Yes, I believe,” then trusting in baptism, communion, or other good works to also save. Only faith in only Jesus can save.
2. Some believed “Have faith in Jesus Christ for salvation alone, and that’s the end of it” No need to do any works at all for God (like some American Christians today). Keep the pews warm and God will be happy. WRONG! Give God everything once (me, wife, kids, TV, Internet, job, money, car, house, free time), then take it all back. Not according to the Bible. Not according to James. Faith that works is faith, then works. You can see a stronger emphasis in James on works as a proof of salvation than in Paul's writings. Many of the ideas that required compromise in Acts 15 were surfacing here in James, and reading James versus reading Paul one can see why they might lead some to think there were two factions of Christianity. However, there were not. James and Paul compliment one another.

3. Some believed, as James and Paul wrote, to be saved and have eternal life; then through the Spirit do good works. THAT’S THE MESSAGE OF JAMES = faith should be perfect, with wisdom, and endure suffering.

James didn't believe you can be saved and live like the devil because of eternal security. James believed you can be saved and live like the Lord.
Now that we've mastered that overall principle of James (ha ha) let's get into chapter one.

First, James' admonition is in v. 2: We need to look at trials as Golden opportunities to prove our faith. In other words, the treasure that comes through a trial. God’s people should determine that when testing comes it is joyful. Let's not get ridiculous, though. My wife heard of a man who broke his elbow and was asked, “You alright?” His response was, “Yeah. Praise God,” through the clenched teeth of pain. “Thank you God.” What a nut! Not what’s intended here. God doesn't expect you to pretend you have no nerve endings. James admonished the Jewish believers who were spread all over the known world to count trials as joy, and the same message applies to you and I.

What is a trial? Definition of a trial: It is when we reach rock bottom and think God has forgotten us in some way or another, or are going through a hard time. We are calling out to God, saying, “Where is God!?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Isn't it interesting that God allows trials in His peoples' lives? James didn't say "if ever," but "whenever." Hmmm.
God allows trials in His peoples’ lives. What is the Biblical definition of a trial? In Greek here, is means "an attempt to learn the nature or character of something."[1] 1 Peter chapter 1 and chapter 3 use this word similarly. Hebrews 3:8 and 9, God warns not to test Him as the Israelites did for 40 years and were made to wander in the desert all 40 years. Trials test faith by giving us opportunities to show what is inside of us. If you bump a cup, whatever is inside of it spills out. So too with us when we experience trials.

If you are involved in farming, and have purchased a new animal or piece of machinery, have you tested it to see how it holds up? How about a new pair of pants or blouse? How about a new car? God also looks at us and wants to show us what our nature or character is. God doesn't cause every trial, but he allows them (at least) in order to see where we are and so we can grow. James says, “Count it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”
Count it joy, means in Greek, “consider, reckon” or (MY FAVORITE) DETERMINE IT JOY. What is the application: Too many times we get wrapped up in trials and problems as if one day on earth we will no longer have any! Verse 2, “If ever you face trials?” “Whenever you face trials.” James urges us to determine today to endure the next trial and maintain godliness. It's easy to do when we're in a state of plenty, but do it during a trial. What is your trial right now? What is your attitude about that trial? Your perspective makes all the difference in the world!

My daughter loves to draw. I asked her one day to draw a picture of me. She drew my head and my face was covered by all these lines. I asked her "what is that on Daddy's face?" "That's your gotee," she said. I guess I'm pretty hairy from her perspective. Another father took his daughter to see Westminster Abbey and the large columns and ceilings. After looking for a while, the father asked the daughter, "What do you think?" She replied, "Dad, you're a lot smaller than I thought you were." James urges us to do the opposite of what we usually do, and face a trial with a different perspective: joy—because we will prove that we have a solid faith! A joyful Christian knows that the worst trial will eventually end. When you lose your job, your wife threatens divorce, your husband threatens you, when a child become pregnant outside of marriage or rebels, when a child runs away from home, or from you, or from the Lord, when it’s been months or years since a steady, dependable income, when the car that you’re ashamed of doesn’t even run. Ouch!

What is your perspective on trials? There's a lot of bad theology out there that says "God's people will never suffer or experience hardship. If you do experience hardship, it's because you don't believe." WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! Nothing in Scripture promises 100% "hunkey dorey situations" for Christians. In fact, 2 Timothy 3 promises that all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. There is a treasure of Christian maturity that can ONLY come through a trial. I'm glad for my trials in the past, though many I would never repeat. Much wisdom has come through those dark days, and finding the light at the end of those tunnels. I'm much closer to the One who has always led me through them.

Some of the darkest times in my life and my marriage were between jobs (nobody's born a pastor. I've had many other types of jobs) or when suffering a serious trial, and we didn't know when it would end, and barely made it through with our faith.

The next principle James teaches about trials is this: Every Trial should make Us Stronger (v. 3). This is because trials test the faith and develop perseverance (v. 3). Trials develop perseverance. “perseverance” means “the capacity to hold out or bear up in the face of difficulty.”[2]
These developments happen IF, we face trials with joy.
When you develop perseverance, God will see your character and move you onto better circumstances.

But you can’t handle the future circumstances until you handle the present ones with perseverance.

In weightlifting, martial arts, music, academics/school, forensics, memorizing Scripture, or any other discipline we can think of—we must push ourselves to grow, and the same with our Christian life!
We should look forward to trials like a football game, a wrestling match, a golf tournament, a music competition, or any test! It is a chance to stand up and say,
“God, I am yours and watch me display the fruit You have been cultivating in my life!”
There are many Christians who fill the pews of churches on Sunday but will do nothing more all because a trial happened. They think, "God, I know that if I try to get involved for You I'm going to face a trial and its going to hurt, and I don't want to hurt, so I'm not going to do anything more for You, Lord." If that's the deal you've made with God, you've also made a deal not to grow. You have a gas tank full of gas and the car is in park, ready to go anywhere, but parked.

I read of two setters who were being trained to hunt birds. They were interrupted by a neighbor's bulldog who entered their yard and started a fight with them. Those two setters tore that bulldog apart, and it yiped away, bloodied and bruised. A strange thing happened. The next day the wounded bulldog returned. He fought the two setters, but again they beat him and he returned wounded. The next day the bulldog returned, and again the same things happened. After a week of this happening, the stubborn bulldog returned again, and the setters decided they didn't want to fight anymore and when the bulldog chased them, they ran away. After another week the setters continued running away every time the bulldog entered the yard, because they were tired of fighting. The story ends with the owner explaining that now the bulldog comes into his yard as if he owns the place, and the setters are terrified of him.

It's not always about "can I win this fight?" God is on our side. It may seem like we're losing the battle, but we must be like the bulldog and continue, continue, continue to obey God. Continue, continue, continue to pray. Continue, continue, continue to read His word. In the end, we will persevere. "Sorrow may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning."

Christian discipline comes into this as well. There are times when it seems like I can't get into my devotions and prayer. Sometimes I read the Scripture for the day and think, "Okay. Whatever. I don't get it." But I must continue so I can persevere and get better.

William Barclay wrote this, regarding Coleridge, a poet at the end of the 1700's and beginning of the 1800's. Barclay wrote, "Coleridge is the supreme tragedy of indiscipline. Never did so great a mind produce so little. He left Cambridge University to join the army; but he left the army because, in spite of all his erudition, he could not rub down a horse; he returned to [college] and left without a degree. He began a paper called The Watchman which lived for ten numbers and then died. It has been said of him: 'He lost himself in visions of work to be done, that always remained to be done. Coleridge had every poetic gift but one--the gift of sustained and concentrated effort.' In his head and in his mind he had all kinds of books, as he said himself, 'completed save for transcription.' 'I am on the eve,' he says, 'of sending to the press two octavo volumes.' But the books were never composed outside Coleridge's mind, because he would not face the discipline of sitting down to write them out. No one ever reached any eminence, and no one having reached it ever maintained it, without discipline."[3]
It's worth re-reading that last sentence.

President Calvin Coolidge said, "Nothing is more common than unsuccessful individuals with talent."

So where are you? Have you decided to give up anyway? Has the idea of future trials discouraged you? Are you saying, "It's not worth it just for perseverance?" Read 1 Cor 3:10–15, about how we will have either precious stones or worthless stubble (read it). Will your life survive the fire and test of trials? What will God find when He “attempts to learn the nature or character of you?”

[1] BDAG, s.v.

[2] BDAG, s.v.

[3] Taken from Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald S. Whitney, (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1991), p. 20. Brackets mine.

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