Reading the Letter of James #1

Contrary to a previous post, I only preached this one Sunday on James. We have an opportunity to allow a visiting translation consultant preach next week, so I agreed to preach both my sermons today. Well, I actually combined them into one.

A few weeks ago, we heard a sermon on how we should read the Old Testament. We were reminded that God is always the main character, accomplishing his purposes despite the sinful nature of his people. This was illustrated for us in the story of Jacob in Genesis 27.

So today I talked about how we should read the New Testament book of Jacob. That’s right—the Greek name for James is really Ἰάκωβος, ‘Jacob’. And it’s addressed to the ‘twelve tribes’ even as Jacob was the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

But more than the fun similarity of the names, the Letter of James is often thought of as the New Testament book most like the Old Testament. It’s called New Testament wisdom literature. More than any other New Testament book, it speaks about what we must ‘do’. We are to persevere so that we can become mature or ‘perfect’. We are to hear the word of God and do it. We are to have faith with works. The Law is spoken of in favorable terms.

Because of this emphasis on what we do, Martin Luther called it eyn rechte stroern Epistel, “a right strawy epistle,” and in 1522, in his first translation of the New Testament into German, he allocated it to an obscure place behind Revelation. He called it an epistle of straw, alluding to 1 Corinthians 3.11-13…

For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is
Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver,
precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for
the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself
will test the quality of each man’s work.

So is James really an epistle of straw? Can we move beyond Luther in our appraisal of James? Well, it is clear that Luther himself moved beyond his earlier perspective since he preached and taught from James in later years.

How should we read James? Is there more there than just practical wisdom? Is it more than just a collection of unrelated topics?

This series of posts (Reading the Letter of James) will focus on how to read James in a way that moves beyond the typical understanding of it as a serious of separate topics. What can we learn from “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”?

My sermon today was about God’s grace and mercy in James. Although there is much in James about what we do, God’s grace is the beginning and end of it all. Just like in the Old Testament, God is also the main character of the New Testament, and in the Letter of James. More on that next time…

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