Welcome to part two of our series “Faith Works” as we cover the book of James! James is, as we explored last week, the first New Testament book written. Its author is one of the brothers of Jesus. He was a leader—Paul calls him “a pillar”—of the influential Jerusalem church. And James is direct. His is the most practical book in the New Testament.
We begin today with the challenge of how to respond to the trial of being financially stressed, how to respond when you’re financially blessed, and how to respond when you are tempted—three situations that between them cover all of us.
James begins with the trial of being financially stressed. And just as it was surprising to hear that we should look for joy in trials, the word here to poor believers is just as surprising. It is that…
Christ’s message uplifts the poor.
“Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position.”
If you are a Christian who finds yourself financially lacking, let the gospel remind you that in Christ, you are spiritually rich. Your bank balance is not the most important thing about you, despite what the world might imagine.
It was Jesus who said it plainly in Luke 12:2:
“Life is not measured by how much you own.”
Luke 12:15 NLT
How new your car is, how big your home is, those things are not the most significant thing about you. What matters most is what you have that will last, that will endure forever. And that you have because of Jesus. You are blessed.
There are many people who, when the economy turned down several years ago, 30% of what they owned vanished overnight. Gone. James is speaking to the believer who got swept along in that financial riptide, reminding you that still, you are richly blessed.
At least one of our songs here was written by Brian Doerksen. Brian and his wife have a son named Isaiah. After Isaiah’s birth, they learned that he has a genetic condition that will hinder his development physically, mentally, and emotionally. Upon hearing this, they were understandably heartbroken.
With that, Brian was done writing worship songs, done with leading worship. But then over time, his perspective shifted. Brian writes, “I used to think people were most blessed by our great victories. But now I know differently: People are just longing to hear [others] speak of how they have walked through the deepest valleys. The world lifts up the victorious and the successful, but God lifts up the brokenhearted.” That’s what James is talking about. If financial security eludes you, God is still for you.
Brian Doerksen Make Love, Make War (David C. Cook, 2009)
So while you work on finances, shift your attention to how spiritually blessed you. You have Christ’s forgiveness, Christ’s leadership in your life. You have access to his wisdom. You have a promised inheritance awaiting—all because of him. In Christ you are blessed. Brag about that; boast about him.
James looks across the congregation to the other end of the spectrum financially, and has a word for the financially secure.
Christ’s message humbles the wealthy.
Where Christ’s message uplifts the poor, that same message humbles the wealthy. Look with me at verses 10-11. James writes…
“But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.”
The world looks down on the poor and idolizes the rich. To be wealthy is to be admired and sought after. Investor Warren Buffett auctioned off a lunch with him for charity a while back, and the winning bid was over $350,000—sure hope it was a good lunch!
James’ counsel to the wealthy is that all of us are on equal footing spiritually. We come equally needy. So success in the financial realm, as wonderful as it is, has nothing to do with your spiritual standing, your standing before God. Apart from Christ we are all bankrupt, whether your checking account is in the red or it’s loaded with money. We are all equally spiritually needy.
And all the stuff we buy and store and go into debt over, James reminds us we’ll leave it all behind. He pictures the wild flowers that bloom ever-so-briefly in the Middle Eastern desert. Their beauty is matched only by their brevity. So beautiful, so brief. Just. Like. Us. Our wealth is stunningly temporary.
Some of you will recognize the name Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was an outspoken atheist who made a splash with books and speaking tours a few years back. He was once asked if he could identify Christianity’s greatest contribution. I want you to hear his reply. Hitchens said, “The greatest contribution of Christianity in my life is the reminder of the complete ephemerality [the state of being temporary, short-lived] of human power, and indeed of human existence—the transience of all states, empires, heroes, grandiose claims, and so forth.”
Christopher Hitchens, The Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, “Can Civilization Survive Without God?” (10-12-10)
There’s an atheist, recognizing the same truth that James holds out here 2,000 years ago: wealth is temporary. It is not everything. It must not be the be-all and end-all in life. Many have gone to bed rich, and woken up poor…or not woken up at all.
Other kinds of wealth are just as fleeting:
Good looks fade.
- Success in business or sports is surpassed by the next wave of talent.
- Relationships that look rock-solid can crack and crumble to our shock and dismay.
- Our newest stuff inevitably rusts or wears out or breaks.
For the wealthy, the gospel—Christ’s message—is humbling. It’s a good reminder not to confuse success with salvation.
In verse 12 James brings both groups together. Whether you are a Christian who is poor or wealthy, what we have in common is that…
Christ’s message gives strength in trials.
“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”
Go all the way back to where James started: we all face trials of many kinds. What matters more than which kind of hardship—whether poor and tempted to lose sight of how blessed you are spiritually, or wealthy and tempted to confuse money with spiritual security—what matters more is persevering through the trials, sticking with Christ whatever life throws at you. Christ’s message gives strength in the midst of trials, helping us realize “I don’t have to face this alone. Christ is with me and he is for me.”
- So if you’re struggling financially, remember your high standing because of Christ.
- If lots of money is there right now, remember that it’s temporary; it’s what you have in Christ that will last. To say that a bit differently…
- When money is tight, focus on the certainty of heaven;
- When the bank balance is up, remember the transience of wealth.
Whichever test is yours—the test of poverty or the test of how you handle wealth—press on with Christ and he will reward you. He calls it “the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” And that’s what we’re really talking about here. The Christian faith isn’t a list of things to do and other things to avoid. It’s about how we respond to the love of God poured out for us in Jesus Christ. And here, the test is which we love more—cash, or Christ. Let Christ’s message give you strength to press on when hardship hits. Don’t quit.
Now beginning with verse 13, James shifts from how we respond to outside circumstances, to the stuff that wells up within us at times. His caution in verses 13-18 is that…
Christ’s message can be missed by self-deception.
The same word translated “trials” in verse 2 reads “tempted” in verse 13. Here’s the idea: the trials around us can pull up all kinds of temptations within us. Don’t be deceived about that, James warns. Don’t be ignorant or naïve. You need to understand how temptation works, you need to understand where temptation leads, and you need to understand who God is. Let’s take those one at a time.
First comes a caution about ourselves.
Understand how temptation works.
“When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.”
In verse 2, James speaks of “whenever” you face trials of many kinds. “When,” not “if.” Similar here in verse 13: “When” you are tempted, not “if.” Everyone gets tempted. There’s plenty of bait to go around. Expect temptation. Don’t be deceived about that. Being tempted doesn’t mean you’re worse than someone else. It’s the normal human experience.
He could have talked about the devil tempting us. He writes about Satan later in the letter, but not here.
James could have cautioned about how worldliness pressures us into sin. He does write about that later as well, but not here.
Here, the focus is on the oldest excuse in the book: blaming God for our own poor choices. Adam did it way back in Eden. That has continued all through history. As Proverbs 19:3 in The Message paraphrase asks…
“People ruin their lives by their own stupidity, so why does God always get blamed?”
Proverbs 19:3 MSG
It’s not God’s fault when our own desires lead us astray. God isn’t trying to trip you up or tempt you to sin. Never.
When we see the “Wet paint” sign and touch it just to see, not God’s fault.
When the speed limit sign says 65 and we push it to 75 and get pulled over, not God’s fault.
When signs at the Grand Canyon warn to “Stay back from ledge” but people go to the edge and fall, not God’s fault.
What is happening? “Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.” James uses language from the realms of hunting and fishing. His first term was often used in Greek to refer to a baited trap designed to lure an unsuspecting animal into it…where it is dragged away. His second term was commonly used in fishing to refer to the bait itself, whose purpose likewise is to lure prey from safety to capture and death.
His point is that in exactly the same way we succumb to temptation when our own desires grab command central and override conscience and caution. The desire to sin wells up from within our own hearts, even if fanned into flame from outside sources. Understand how temptation works.
J.C. Ryle, a church leader in 19th-century England, describes how temptation snares us, writing,
“We are too apt to forget that temptation to sin will rarely present itself to us in its true colors, saying, ‘I am your deadly enemy, and I want to ruin you forever in hell.’ Oh no! Sin comes to us like Judas, with a kiss; like Joab, with outstretched hand and flattering words. The forbidden fruit seemed good and desirable to Eve; yet it cast her out of Eden. Walking idly on his palace roof seemed harmless enough to David; yet it ended in adultery and murder. Sin rarely seems [like] sin at first beginnings. Let us then watch and pray, lest we fall into temptation.”
—J. C. Ryle, Bishop of Liverpool, England (1800s), Holiness
This is the strangest thing about human nature. The desires to sin await within, yet it is ourselves that our desires damage and destroy. We’re prone to self-destructive behavior. We need to understand that; understand how temptation works. Second, we need to…
Understand where temptation leads.
“Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
It’s a shocking analogy, James uses—the image of conception through birth, to describe temptation’s gestation ending in spiritual death. Normally, a birth is great cause for celebration. Not when it comes to sin. When our desires are skewed, our thinking becomes skewed. When our thinking gets cloudy, our actions move into the moral shadows. Once sin is born, it grows stronger. And sin unchecked leads to spiritual death, separation from God. Adam and Eve experienced it in Eden, and humanity has ever since. The reason James writes this goes all the way back to the beginning of the chapter: trials and troubles are a normal part of our experience. When it comes to temptation, the warning is not to be caught off guard. Don’t be deceived about how temptation starts and where it ultimately leads.
For the first time in almost 50 years recently, wild tuna were running just 30 miles off Cape Cod. And they were biting! All you needed to catch one was a sharp hook and some bait. The rewards for doing so are substantial. Some buyers will pay as much as $50,000 for one nice bluefin tuna; one fish!
The problem is that many would-be fishermen ignored Coast Guard warnings and headed out to sea to seek their fortune in small boats. What those new fishermen didn’t realize is that the problem isn’t catching a tuna—the problem comes after they’re caught on your line.
One September day, a 19-foot boat christened the Christi Anne capsized while doing battle with a tuna. That same day the 27-foot boat Basic Instinct suffered the same fate, while Official Business, a 28-footer, was swamped after it hooked onto a 600-pound tuna. The tuna pulled the boat underwater.
They underestimated the power of the fish they were trying to catch. James warns that’s what temptation does to us. Don’t be deceived about temptation. It takes us by surprise; that’s the whole idea. It looks shiny and smells great as it zooms by. It’s only after the hook sinks in that we discover sin’s strength.
Kent Edwards, South Hamilton, Massachusetts
C.S. Lewis, in his little fiction paperback titled The Great Divorce, notes this sobering truth:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”
With verse 16, James contrasts how deceptive temptation is, up against how awesome God is, reminding us not only to understand how temptation works and where it leads. As a Christian, understand who God is.
Understand who God is:
“Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”
As human beings, we have tendencies to forget two things: how bad we can be, and how good God is! We forget just how rotten we can be—in thought life, in cutting words, and in dark actions. World history is all the evidence we need, no less our own track records. And we also tend to forget how good God is.
In the context of what this chapter is talking about—trials and difficulties—when you’re in the middle of a tough situation, it’s easy to lose sight of how blessed we are in other ways, how God has blessed us. So James redirects our attention for a moment, from the many trials, to the One, awesome God who loves us. He is the source of all blessings. God is, James reminds us…
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights…”
God is the Creator. Life has purpose, because you have a Creator. You are not a cosmic accident. You are more than a random assembly of chemicals that spit and spark for a time and then fizzle out. You have a Creator. He created the Milky Way and placed this green orb in the midst of it. He reigns over all creation, with it functioning perfectly to sustain us and provide for us. God who created the universe knows and cares for you. Your trials and troubles are not overwhelming to him. He is the Sovereign Creator. Second, James reminds us, God is…
“[He] does not change like shifting shadows.”
When you drive to work in the morning lately, if you’re like me there are times when the sun blinds you right from its spot just above the horizon. It’s hard to see when brake lights go on in front of you, or when the traffic light changes, thanks to that big ball of fire blazing right where you’re trying to see.
But within a week, it will be different, as the length of days lessens. James draws on the image of shifting light and shadows to make the point that God doesn’t change. He is dependable. You can rely on him. What he promises, he delivers. Who he is doesn’t shift unpredictably. He’s not like the capricious Greek gods who today might be in a good mood, but watch out tomorrow.
Or as we would say it today, the Lord isn’t a fair-weather friend. God doesn’t play favorites one month but then drop you and move on to someone else later on. He sets his love on those who love his Son, and his commitment never falters. He is dependably constant. Third, James reminds us, God is…
Our heavenly Father
“He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”
Where we sometimes choose temptation that lures us into sin, God chose us. He chose to set his love upon us. God so loved the world—along with all of our tendencies to give in to temptation—he so loved us that he gave his One and Only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish—will not experience the death that sin leads to—but will have eternal life.
Jesus called it being born again, or born from above. James says the new birth is a gift from God. It’s not something you have to try to earn or deserve.
James tells us how to receive the new birth: “through the word of truth,” meaning you believe the good news message of Jesus—that all who trust in his death and resurrection are forgiven of sin and given new life with God.
And James tells us the result of this new birth: we become a kind of “firstfruits” of all he created.
We don’t talk about firstfruits, but his Jewish readers understood this. Firstfuits are the initial part of the crop that grow ripe and are ready to harvest. Firstfruits are also the beginning of the rest of the harvest that is soon to come in. All the sweat and elbow grease that went into that field—the tilling, and sowing, and weeding, and fertilizing, is finally producing what the farmer has been working towards all along.
God is the farmer. And you and I are the firstfruits. If you head to the grocery store after church today, you’re going to see this year’s pumpkins prominently displayed. They’re not in a back room in the dark somewhere. They’re not on the clearance rack. They’ve been placed front and center for all to see!
And think about this: when you’re a kid, and you see the first pumpkins of the year put out on display, it’s exciting! Those pumpkins tell you that Halloween is coming, in all its healthy goodness!
Now catch this: what those pumpkins are to kids, you are to God.
Every man, woman and child who trusts in Jesus Christ is given birth through the word of truth, through believing the good news message of Jesus. You become a kind of firstfruits of all God created.
Everything God has been doing from eternity past; All of his revelation, from Genesis, to the prophets, to Jesus and the apostles;
Every person who had a part in bringing the message of Jesus to you; It all comes to fruition when you are born again. You become what you were meant to be, a child of God. And heaven throws a party.
So trials? Let them come. We’re blessed in Christ. Press on with Christ, until you receive the reward awaiting those who love him.