Some of my favorite movies include plot twists. I remember the first time I watched The Book of Eli. (Spoiler alert!) In an incredible turn of events, the protagonist seemingly loses to an evil man who gets his fingers on the most powerful book in history only to figure out that he cannot read it because it was written in braille—a language only our hero knew. My mind was blown. I had to immediately watch again to see it in a newly informed sense of appreciation.
Normally, spoilers like this are irritating. Not so, when it comes to the book of James. Spoilers can equip us to read it with informed senses. Granted, James doesn’t have any plot-twists. But, knowing the prominent message will really fix the lenses that we will use to read.
James, a Jewish Christian, is the author of the epistle. He wrote to wide Jewish-Christian audience who was scattered throughout the known world. Most scholars believe he penned this letter in the middle of the first century making it one of the first, if not the first, books of the New Testament written.
Jewish people were largely outcasts in the world. They were a peculiar people. Ever think about how the Bible describes the people of earth—Jews and Gentiles. There were Jews and there were other people. They were a unique people. “Weirdos,” you might say. Their culture was unlike the other cultures of the world. And, for this, they were often rejected and dispossessed.
Being a Jew was tough. Being a Christian was tougher. Being a Jewish-Christian was the worst. They were the blackened, black sheep. They were the step-brother’s brother. The world despised the Jews. The world and the Jews despised the Christians. So, Christians who were Jews were twice rejected.
James, a twice-rejected Christian, wrote this letter to twice-rejected people scattered through a world of persecutors. His overall messages is structured around concept of trials. You can easily divide it into three parts.
Part One — James 1:1-18
The first part sets the expectations and mood of the entire letter. Here, James introduces the idea of “testing” or “trials.” He expresses why they exist and what they are meant to accomplish. He believes, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that trials have purpose. They reveal something. So, he develops a worldview for trials in the Christian life. His desire is for the reader to ask himself, “Am I imperfect? What do trials reveal about my faith?”
Part Two — James 1:19-5:12
The second part is the bulk of his discourse. He intends to show you not just where you lack, but how badly. Here, he circles through a series of specific trials that put your faith to the test. He is forcing the reader to face-up with the reality of his imperfections. Yea, he is putting your faith on trial. If you read it like I did, you find yourself repeatedly falling short of God’s glory. And by “repeatedly,” I mean that these tests knock you down, then kick you while you’re down.
Part Three — James 5:13-20
The final part is his benediction. By the time you reach this section, you’re so humiliated by your imperfection you might wonder if you are saved at all. It begins with, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray” (Ja. 5:13). This entire chunk of the letter is about prayer, because it is the only thing you can do after failing so much. You need grace. It is also one of the most convincing parts of the Bible on prayer. It serves like a jolt of electricity to the dying body.
The first and third parts of James serve as bookends to the series of trials, which are meant to put your faith to the test. He desires that we have perfect faith. By this, he means a “complete” faith. He wants us to be a whole Christian, not a partial one. Read it for yourself:
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (Ja. 1:2-4)
The various tests of faith are meant to reveal double-mindedness and incompleteness (Ja. 1:8). For instance, “be doers of the word, not just hearers” because that is incompleteness (Ja. 1:22). “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue,” he is a partial Christian (Ja. 1:26). If you show “partiality as you hold the faith,” you are lacking (Ja. 2:1). “What good is it, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” (Ja. 2:14).
Had enough? James keeps going.
If you use your tongue for good and evil, you are not whole (Ja. 3:2). If you profess heavenly kinship but operate in earthly wisdom (Ja. 3:15), or confess friendship with God while holding hands with the world (Ja. 4:4), or make plans without consulting the Omniscient Lord (Ja. 4:17), you are imperfect. And, if you love God and money (Ja. 5:1) or grumble while suffering (Ja. 5:9), you are “double-minded, and unstable in all your ways” (Ja. 1:8).
Whew! I know how you feel.
These tests are brutal. Any honest Christian would admit failure on all of these trials. What they reveal, however, is even more painful. Remember, they are tests of faith (Ja. 1:3). If you fail, then your walk of faith is weak at best. At worst, it is altogether absent, and you are not saved at all. This raises the stakes of these faith-tests.
Seriousness like this is not exclusive to James. The apostle Paul urged:
“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Cor. 13:5).
Self-examination is important to the believer. As Peter tells us that when we have been “grieved by various trials” we may rejoice to see “that the tested genuineness of your faith” is “more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire” (1 Pet. 1:6-7). So, we are to be “all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” by developing steadfastness under trials (2 Pet. 1:10-11). James put it this way:
“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (Ja. 1:12).
For the Christian, painful trials mature faith. And, now that the spoilers are over, read James all the way through and see how your faith holds up in the end.