In A.D. 46 followers of Jesus were a persecuted minority in Jerusalem, forced underground and became a nearly invisible community of faith. Many fled, as immigrant refugees, to other places throughout the Roman world. James, arguably the brother of Jesus and acknowledged head of the Jerusalem Church, wrote a general letter to these scattered believers. Regardless of tradition relegating the Letter of James to a place near the end of the New Testament, it having evidently been written before the first Jerusalem Council, it seems highly likely that it was the first of the New Testament books written. It is our best source for understanding the substance of the faith of followers of Jesus before the Apostle Paul.
That Jame’s letter has been included in the canon of the New Testament has been a matter of contention for hundreds of years principally because it so clearly contradicts the primary assertion of the Apostle Paul and much of the Christian Church which appropriated a theology of salvation by faith alone. It is a perspective most of us have grown up with and never challenged. It is typically articulated that when a person “accepts the Lord Jesus Christ who died in our place we are justified, at peace and spared from the penalty.” This is the theory of substitutionary atonement. Though it is by far the theory that is most familiar, it’s not found in James and we don’t find it in the Gospels. What is found in James (1:12) is “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him”. Along with the Gospels and the whole of the Old Testament, James evidently doesn’t embrace the notion of universal human depravity, an essential element in a substitutionary atonement.
Jewish scholarship attests that prior to the Jews return to Palestine from their forced detention in Babylonia, which occurred in 538 BC there was no basis in Jewish tradition for a belief in retribution for the soul after death; this was supplied to the Jews by the Babylonians and Persians and received its Jewish coloring from the word “Gehinnom” (the valley of Hinnom), made detestable by the fires of the Moloch sacrifices practiced by the evil Kings Ahaz and Manasseh,the latter of whom made a burnt offering of his own son. According to one tradition it is in this place that the smoke from subterranean fires come up through the earth. Enoch said of the place that “there are cast the spirits of sinners and blasphemers and of those who work wickedness and pervert the words of the Prophets.”
The place serves a double purpose, annihilation and eternal pain and we find that it has seven names: “Sheol,” “Abbadon,” “Pit of Corruption,” “Horrible Pit,” “Mire of Clay,” “Shadow of Death,” and “Nether Parts of the Earth.” It has seven departments, stacked one beneath the other. There are seven kinds of pains. According to rabbinical tradition, thieves are condemned to fill an unfillable tank; the impure sink into a quagmire; those that sinned with their tongue are suspended by it; some are suspended by the feet, hair, or eyelids; others eat hot coals and sand; others are devoured by worms, or placed alternately in snow and fire. The punishment of those who led others into heresy or dealt treacherously against the Law will never cease. This is the punishment to which Paul refers in his statement that when we “accept the Lord Jesus Christ who died in our place we are justified, at peace and spared from the penalty.”
You can see how effective such a tool this threat would have been to Ezra and Nehemiah as they struggled to restore Temple worship and community compliance with the Jewish law when the Jews returned from their Babylonian exile.
We’ve been told that it was at Antioch, one of those far flung places to which first century converted Jews fled, that believers in Jesus were first called Christians. And like Antioch, the places to which these people fled, and to which James is addressed, were not conducive to righteous living. It can have rich meaning for us as we are reminded that genuine faith transforms lives. James encouraged his readers, and that includes you and me, not so much as to put our faith into action but to live out of the faith that is within us. It is easy to protest that we have faith, but true faith, especially in communities that are resistant the message of the Gospel, results in loving actions towards others.
James wants us to make sure our faith is more than just a statement of belief – it is about action. Matthew, Mark and Luke all find it important to present Jesus articulating a special commandment that came from the heart of Judaism: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. It is in keeping the law of love that our faith is vital and real.
James also wants us to know that while we encounter trials and temptations in the Christian life God will supply all that we need to face persecution or adversity. Overcoming these challenges produces maturity and strong character. James insists that God will give you patience and keep you strong in times of trial.
James reminds us that we are responsible for the destructive results of what we say. Your words are to convey true humility and lead to peace. While we are cautioned to think before we speak the bigger challenge and the promise is that God will give you self-control.
He says we should not show partiality to the wealthy or be prejudiced against the poor. We are accountable for how we use what we have. We should not hoard wealth but rather be generous toward others. Christians should store up God’s treasures through sincere service.
James writes: 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. In 2:14 we read: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
After five chapters of guidance, challenging his readers about their judgment of others, how they speak of others, how they do are do not respond to the need of others – in 5:7 he says: Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. 9Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
Traditional themes for the Sundays of Advent are Love, Joy, Peace and Faith and the underlying purpose is to prepare Christians not for the birth of Jesus, but for a long awaited second coming of the Messiah, similar to the Jews, while rejecting Jesus, continue to wait for the Messiah to come. James simply picks up on another theme: Patience.
But this patience isn’t focused on a Messiah who is yet to come in some future. It is having patience with ourselves as we respond to Christ living within us. He says that the coming of the Lord is near, that the judge is standing at the door. Our challenge is to open that door, as did the obedient prophets, and live fully as Christ calls us to live. That is good news to me. James recognizes that becoming the person Christ intends for us to be isn’t at a flip of a switch. Hearing and obeying Christ is a process of learning to let God rule our hearts, our tongues and even our bank accounts. And it isn’t premised on a fear of punishment rather on delighting in living in relationship with Christ himself.
Jame’s advice is to be patient, until the coming of the Lord. For us, that doesn’t speak of an end of the world, but of Christ’s spirit invading our life. The Holy Spirit’s first task on being received is to examine our lives and show us the trash we’ve accumulated that needs to be discarded – and that can be painful indeed, especially when some of our grumbling and judging others is connected to our limited understanding of what it means to be a good person, a good Christian. “You must be patient” and I take that to mean both with our selves and with others.