THE EPISTLE OF JAMES
Reading: James ch. 1
One of the outstanding characteristics of the Truth as it is in Jesus is its simplicity. Our Lord Jesus instituted but two ordinances, namely, baptism and the breaking of bread. The practice of our first century brethren therefore partook of this same simplicity. We have recently read the historian's account of the breaking of bread in the first century, in Dr. Mosheim's "Ecclesiastical History." This is what he wrote:
"The places of assembly were undoubtedly the private dwelling houses of Christians, but as necessity required that when a congregation was formed and duly regulated some fixed, uniform place for its meetings should be designated, and as some furniture was requisite for their accommodation, such as books, tables and benches, which could not be conveniently transported from place to place, especially in those perilous times, it was undoubtedly the case that the place of their assemblies soon became, instead of a private room, a sort of public one".
Then he proceeded to describe one of the meetings for the breaking of bread. We will only quote a line or two. He said: "In these public assemblies of Christians the Holy Scriptures were read, which for that purpose were divided into portions or lessons." The primary meaning of that word "lessons" is simply "readings." We read according to the Bible Companion; they read according to lessons, set readings. Then, quoting again, he said: "Then followed an exhortation to the people, neither eloquent nor long, but full of warmth and love."
Well, all we have quoted could truly be said of brethren and sisters now. We have had the lessons or the readings, the prayer and the hymns. Mosheim mentions all those things too. Now we come to the exhortation. From these portions, these daily readings, our brethren who exhort us from week to week are able to give us that varied spiritual food, and as a result we get well balanced spiritual growth.
As we have been reading this letter of James we thought of Mosheim's account of the first century exhortations, not characterised by highflown language or wordy eloquence but full of warmth and love. This epistle of James is quite characteristic in its simplicity, its straightforward force, in the way in which he exhorts the members of the spiritual house of Israel. If he makes a point it is direct and it goes home. His warnings, his instructions are plain, they are expressed in simple words. Our late beloved Bro. Walter White was exhorting once on this very epistle of James and he said it was the "Monday morning" epistle. It does indeed get down in a blunt way to the problems, the trials and temptations of everyday life in the Truth.
We ask, who was James? Well, he was not the apostle bearing that name. James the brother of John had been put to death years before by Herod, and it was shortly afterwards Herod put Peter in prison, intending to do the same to him. No, the James who wrote this letter is described by Paul in one of his letters as "James, the Lord's brother." In another place he describes him as one of the pillars of the ecclesia in Jerusalem.
Many of the clergy of the apostasy think they do honour to Jesus and to his mother, Mary, by declaring that Mary was always a virgin, that she never had any other children, but what a gross error that is. They dismiss the passage in Matthew where we read that those of Galilee said: "Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?" They say, "O, that just means kinsfolk, relatives, not actual half-brothers and half-sisters." But the Scriptures are quite conclusive. In the early days of his ministry even his own brothers did not realise that he was the Son of God. They could not then have made the declaration that Peter later made: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." They said: "If thou do these things, show thyself to the world," and the record adds: "For neither did his brethren believe in him." These were the children of his mother, Mary, not brethren in the wide and general sense. How do we know? Why, that very early unbelief was foretold in the Psalms. In the 69th Psalm, a Messianic psalm the words of which are very well known, there we have the Spirit moving David to write these words: "I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien unto my mother's children. For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up."
That word "alien" had not quite the sense that it has today. It simply means "unknown." At that time, in the early part of Christ's ministry, his brethren knew him, of course, as the son of Mary, but they did not know him in that sense of being the Son of the Highest, the Lamb of God, and so to that extent he was unknown to his mother's children. But how delightful it is to know that those mists of ignorance were cleared away, and that James, the son of Mary, became the devoted bond-servant of our dear Lord Jesus Christ, and a very humble man too; and he is the man who wrote this letter from which we have read this morning.
Have you ever thought of the opening words of this epistle, James 1:1? See how he describes himself: not James, the brother of the Lord, but "James, a servant"—a bondservant—"of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greetingHe had a brother, Jude. How does Jude describe himself? He does not claim that close relationship, the brother of the Lord. No he says: "Jude, the servant of Jesus Christ." Just "the slave of Jesus Christ, and brother of James." That is all. He says, "James is my brother, perhaps you will know me by that fact." Very humble, were they not, these two writers. But they were inspired men and here are their writings, guided by the Spirit. These records are here to help us in these days.
The integrity and godliness of James earned him very great esteem, not only among the brethren and sisters in Jerusalem but among the Jews generally in the Holy City; and when later all the troubles fell on Jerusalem, if you read Josephus you will find they felt that it was because of the cruel way in which they had treated James. If they felt that about James, how much more true was it that the evils came on the city because of the treatment of the Lord Jesus Christ.
To get the background of James, our Lord appeared specially to him after his resurrection. You know those well known words of Paul: "Christ. . . rose again the third day according to the scriptures: ... he was seen of Peter, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once . . . after that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles." And Paul says: "Last of all he was seen of me also." Yes, on the road to Damascus, in that bright vision.
Then, when Peter was released from the prison—you will remember how James the apostle had been put to death, and Peter was in prison, sleeping between two soldiers. He thought he was having a dream. The angel came and smote him on the side and said "Rise up." The great iron gate opened apparently of its own accord and out they went. The angel left Peter. He realised that his release was a fact, and went in the dark to the house of Mark's mother. Brethren and sisters were there praying for Peter. We are told that they "prayed without ceasing." What did he say? He told them what had happened, how the angel had delivered him, and then he told them to go and tell James and the brethren. It just shows the standing of James.
It was not long after this that that great conference was held in Jerusalem, when the Gentile brethren were worried because some of the Jewish brethren were trying to bring in the enactments of the Law of Moses and say they were binding on Gentiles, quite wrongly. It is an old tendency. The Jews had the precepts of the Law so ingrained in them. So they had the conference, and we know their decision. It was James who stood up and "made a proposition," so to speak, which they all adopted, that the Gentiles should not be troubled in this matter; they were to observe certain things but there was no need for them to be circumcised. So we get these little glimpses of James at work for the Truth, and later on, too, when Paul came to Jerusalem.
So we have a picture of this dear brother, with a tremendous responsibility resting on his shoulders. There was a great flock scattered about the city, and there was much oppression from the Jews, and so he writes this epistle to them, and to us—all those that are scattered abroad. With this interesting background we are helped, as we read the letter, to appreciate more his exhortations in what we might call this healthy and vigorous epistle.
Now in the first few lines of the epistle he comes straight to the point. He says: "My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations," or as we should say today, "when you meet your various trials." Here is something quite contrary to the flesh. If we had the ability to order our personal affairs to a nicety we should plot such a course as would never bring us to the Kingdom. Jeremiah stated the simple truth when he declared by the Spirit: "O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps." So it is required of us, from the moment we take our first steps in the Truth, perhaps when we are very young or maybe when we are old, to recognise that trial is a vital ingredient in character-forming.
But there is no need for the youngest pilgrim to be dismayed at the prospect. Behind all our experiences in life we have this consolation, that the God of love knows exactly what we are passing through. When suddenly trial comes we feel terribly lonely. Everything seems black. God knows all about it, and He looks upon us as His dear children. And we with our frailness of heart feel very much put out, do we not? The sudden trial comes. It is bewildering. And is it not hard under the impact to realise that whom the Lord loveth He scourgeth? So we feel as it were a great, high, blank wall in front of us. We cannot see any opening, there is nothing visible. We pray earnestly. The days go by. The prayer seems unanswered. No relief comes.
This is a test from our heavenly Father, who loves us. It is a real call now to put our faith into practice. It is under test now. What are we going to do? Crumble? Or are we going to take comfort and consolation in God's sure promises? Well, when we have recovered from the first impact—and nobody blames another for reeling under an impact—we recuperate quickly and begin to rally our forces- We get hold of the Bible and we read there: "Cast thy burden on the Lord; he will sustain thee." Another: "Rest in the Lord: wait patiently for him " These are assurances, are they not? Cast your burden on the Lord and He will sustain you. Then we find our faith begins to wrestle
th doubts. The pilgrim holds on, and he rests on this assurance. He rTads the words again and again: "God will not suffer you to be tried above that ye are able." There comes that warmth, that consolation. We find that we are facing up to our trials. We feel sure God will not leave us. And then relief comes. It may be slowly, or it may come suddenly. And when we look back and we see the hand of God, almost we shed tears to feel that we ever doubted our God, our Father, that we ever thought that He had forgotten us.
So James says that this trying or testing of our faith "worketh patience." That word James uses there translated "patience" means a holding out, an endurance. That is what this testing works. And so we learn to understand the apparent paradox. Only a day or two ago we read in Hebrews 12: "No chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous." Then we turn over one page of the Bible and we find James saying: "Count it all joy when ye fall into various trials." We have Paul saying that it is very grievous and yet James tells us to count it all joy.
So we go on reading through his letter, and the blunt exhortations come one after another. There is that one in chapter 1: "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves." That is blunt, is it not? Sometimes through circumstances that we cannot control we have to be at what we call "the receiving end," and accept in loving gratitude the services of others who are "doers of the word," but to expect always to be ministered unto instead of being forward in ministering to others, is bad. It betrays a wrong outlook. We are told: "Even Christ pleased not himself." We have come to remember Christ.
We read in the gospels how when he was tired, when he was hungry, when he really wanted some rest, what did he find? Crowds all gathered. They had the sick with them, some lame, some blind. What did he do? He pleased not himself. He did not push the eager throngs away. We are told that without complaint he ministered to them. He healed their sick. He preached to them the word of life. He was the bread of life. Then he fed them. Then as the day drew to a close, very gently he parted from them. Then he went up into a mountain to pray.
Now in chapter 3 verse 2, James touches on our weak spot. There is not a brother or a sister here who can claim exemption from this weakness. He says: "In many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man." So he says: "The tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things . . . The tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison." It sounds terrible, does it not? He likens it to the rudder of a great ship. The rudder is very small in relation to the great bulk of the vessel. The vessel can stand up to the storm and the thrashing of the waves and the wind but the rudder turns it, James says, just where the governor listeth' "Listeth," by the way, is another one of those Old English words. It simply means "pleaseth,"—wherever the governor pleaseth. He turns the helm, the ship turns.
But we cannot put all the blame on the tongue itself, can we! Like the rudder which only turns the ship where the governor listeth, it is the governor who is really responsible for the turning of the ship. Similarly, the tongue does not wag by itself. There is someone directing it. Now the old man of the flesh likes to get hold of the wheel, to be up on deck and turn it where he listeth, and the result is all this evil of which James is telling us. What we have got to do is to check him, to stop him, to get hold of the wheel with the mind of the Spirit, then it makes all the difference. So the figure James uses is very apt. When the emotions are suddenly stirred then how quickly the wrong word slips off the tongue, almost before we are aware of it. How often has every one of us said something and bitterly regretted it immediately afterwards, but we cannot recall it. It has gone, slipped off the tongue beyond recall. And what damage the hasty word can do, and the angry word, aye and the sarcastic word. What harm! And what is even more prevalent still, the thoughtless word. You know how when the tongue goes chattering on and on, before we know what has happened the old man of the flesh has got hold of the wheel on the deck and he is turning the rudder the wrong way. That is why the Wise Man wrote in the Proverbs: "In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise."
Then we ask, how can we help ourselves in this matter? What will help us to restrain this evil? Just one word provides the answer—love. If we love our brethren and sisters we would not wish to do one of them any harm, would we, and certainly not by hurtful words and thoughtless gossip. So here is a practical duty that James plainly points out to us. Human nature has not changed. The brethren and sisters in Jerusalem had the same old man of the flesh as we have. Here is his instruction, and it has been preserved all these centuries for us too. He plainly points out the practical duty.
The Proverb tells us: "The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable: but the mouth of the wicked speaketh frowardness." So the righteous learn by trial and patience to keep the tongue in check. It calls for continual self-discipline. They do it for Christ's sake. In doing it they gradually begin to overcome, and it is a very worthy victory. It is very closely related to what we read: "He that ruleth his spirit (is greater) than he that taketh a city." The man who takes a city can let all the feelings go: we are going to take this city! He can play hero. But the brother or sister who can keep the tongue in check Ichieves'a greater victory.
Keeping under the old man of the flesh—that is a victory that will bring eternal life.
Now, in going on with our thoughts on this epistle, in applying these sober lessons, we must never presume on time. We must never think time is on our side. Now is the day of opportunity, today. This is the time to put anything right that is wrong. This is the time to really make an earnest effort to profit by this counsel of the Spirit. It is there for our good. It has come through these invaluable letters. They have been preserved by God for us through the centuries. And so in chapter 4, James spoke a sober truth: "Ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." I expect you can all remember as children looking at the kettle. Out comes the steam. We look at it. Where has it all gone? It has disappeared. That is what our life is like. Just a little bit of steam, a little bit of vapour, and it has gone.
So we have this exhortation of James. Christ is near. We believe it. The time is short. We have his words in chapter 5.9. He says: "Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door." If Christ quietly opened the door at the back of our hall and walked in now, and some of us had unsettled differences with another brother or sister, something we had done nothing to heal, what would be the effect? What a tremendous sense of shock and shame, especially if he turned and looked on us!
On the other hand, if we really love Christ, if we really long to see him, if we have put our trust in him and he has borne up our prayers to the Father, and he quietly walked in, that love would cast out a tremendous amount of fear.
So we take as our final thought from this epistle the one that is provoked by his words in verse 8: "Be ye patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh." We might ask, Well, did he come nigh to those brethren and sisters? Yes, Christ is never farther away than the day of our death. But today, what a position we are in! We verily believe that the majority of those in this hall this morning will be among those who are alive and remain at his coming. "The coming of the Lord draweth nigh."
As we turn our attention to the emblems on the Table, we know this feast was designed by Christ especially to bring to our minds his sufferings and his death. When he was on earth he knew trial and oppression of spirit. They left their mark on him. Isaiah by the Spirit wrote those words: "He shall grow up as a tender plant, and as a root °ut of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He isdespised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." No beauty. Stricken with grief. But now let us lift up our eyes and look ahead. Let us project the mind forward beyond the coming of Christ, beyond the judgment seat, beyond that tremendous and wonderful moment when the great multitude will be instantly transformed from poor, mortal beings to glorious, incorruptible sons of God. Instead of being lonely pilgrims, trudging along the road to the city, they are there! They have received the gift of immortality. Then the prophet Isaiah cheers us up: "Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty." Not as he was, a poor pilgrim, oppressed, despised but "the king in his beauty." We shall not be able to see the King in his beauty unless we ourselves have immortality. Then we shall be able to look upon him and see his glory, that dazzling glory, for we shall be like him. This is what is in front of us.
So as we go through our varying trials and difficulties, try and keep in mind the words which James used. It will come to an end very soon, and then before us will stretch out an eternity of glory. And so what does James say? We shall see the end of the matter, that "the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.":—G. M. Clements