James 1:1-4 Refining faith God’s way.

Zach (my son-in-law) was telling me the other day that the first couple of weeks at the Gym in the new year are particularly busy but that quickly trails off as people begin to realize the perseverance it takes to retain never mind grow healthy muscle tone.

Those muscles don’t happen over night.  Sometimes people try to take shortcuts to make that happen but that can often lead to very negative results.

Shortcuts like steroids taken to make those muscles bulge and produce a temporarily increase in strength.  In the short run, steroids may produce the looks that one hopes for in lieu of the pain of persevering at the gym.  But in the end the folly of taking steroids produces infertility and impotence.

Studies have shown that those who use them are at increased risk for heart attacks, liver damage, and undesirable personality changes like flying into rages and suffering from delusions.  But hey their bod’s are truly buff right?  And they seem to have extra strength until they no longer have steroids in their system.  Then the crash is big time and the negative impact is long-lasting.  All because the person wasn’t willing to go the course and push through the pain that inevitably comes as a by product of perseverance.

As I began to write this sermon the day was Nov. 11th, a day that is remembered here in Canada for the pain that paid the price of social and political freedom.  If people had not stood up, for what was right and just, genocide would have wiped the Jewish people from the face of the earth.

The pain of parents who lost children, the lost of friends and spouses, the decimation of entire cities like Aleppo, and all the other atrocities brought about by war causes even Christians to suffer.  They suffer physically mentally and their faith is tested to the max like everyone else.

So tell me, what are Christians supposed to do when trials of many kinds come our way?  Big trials like war and littler ones like the battle of the bulge and everything in between.   What is the Christian response?

What is the Christian response or at least what should it be according to the Bible? As our launching point we are going to dig deep into the Book of James who actually spoke much about trials that come our way.

And as we’ll see James advice was to follow Christ’s example, to stay the course, avoiding shortcuts and most of all to persevere even when the way forward looks undesirable.

James is the true grit book of practical Christianity.  The book of doing life as a Christian.  So if you have your Bibles with you let’s open them to James chapter one and we’ll ease into the New Year looking at the first four verses.

(1)  James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. (2)  Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, (3) because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. (4)  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:1-4 (NIV)

Let’s not just skip over that introductory sentence because it says a lot! “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings” (1). In fact, there is so much in it that some preachers have gone more than one message on the first verse alone. So let’s buck up and dig deeper.  What’s James saying as he greets fellow believers?

But wait before we even go there just who is this James that you and I should listen to what he has to say?  And why was this book included in the canon of Scripture that we Christians call our Bible?

Did you know that James was a very common name in the 1st Century?  There are several mentioned in the New Testament alone.

In this chart Michael Hunt categorizes the people named James by their association as referenced in the Bible.  As I read through it I quickly noticed that several categories reference just one man.   But clearly there are no less than four men named James in the NT!  At least two of them were among the early church leaders and one of those was even one of the first disciples of Jesus Christ.

That James was, James whose brother was John, they were known collectively as the sons of Zebedee (cf. Mark 10:35).  These two brothers were known for their explosive personalities.  In fact, the Bible calls them “the sons of thunder” (cf. Mark 3:17).   But scholars are pretty sure that James Zebedee was not the writer of this book because he was martyred in about 44ad long before this book appears to be written.  Luke told us about his ending. 

We read in Acts 12,1  It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2  He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.” Acts 12:1-2 (NIV).   James persevered to the end which came quickly in HIStory.  So if not the thundering James than who wrote this book?

Well the only other James that scholars seem to agree on is the Lord’s own half-brother, the son of Joseph and Mary (cf. Mat. 13:55; Gal. 1:19; Jude 1:1).

Yet the Bible shows that the Lord’s brother James didn’t start out believing that his older brother was the Son of God.  So how’d he end up authoring a practical Christianity book?

In fact, he was a bit embarrassed by his older brother during Jesus ministry time on earth (cf. Luke 8:21).  Even tried to call Him away from the crowds.  But I don’t for a minute think that James was always embarrassed.  After all, little brothers often look up to big brothers at times.  And I’m sure with a model big brother like Jesus, who never did anything sinful, James had someone to look up to. But for a time during Jesus ministry years James was less than persuaded that big Brother was who He claimed to be.

Imagine for a moment having to walk in the shadow of such a big brother.  It must have been somewhat grinding at times to always have to admit with his big brother that yes again you were right!

Yet somehow it wasn’t until after Christ rose from the dead that His little brother James, who was a full grown man by then, came to the realization that Jesus truly was the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  And it wasn’t too long after that, that James became one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17, 15:13, 21:18; Gal. 2:9).  But it didn’t come about by nepotism.  James like every true believer of Christ had to submit Himself to Lord Jesus and we find that he as much as says so even in his greetings to the churches.  James calls himself “…a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1).

That word translated “servant” in the NIV may lessen the impact of the Greek word behind it.  James isn’t simply calling himself one who helps or is paid to help as our understanding of a servant can lead us to believe.  Back then you were either a freeman or a slave.  Those reading the letter for the first time would have totally understood James to be calling himself a willing slave of his older brother.  Jesus was his Lord.  Not just his brother.  He would have shown that he learned to obey Christ as his Master even as you and I must learn to do the same.

It is not popular in our culture to talk about someone with total authority over us.  As a slave back then you were the property of the Master to do as he saw fit.  You may not have liked what the master told you to do but you did it because he told you to do it.  You followed orders or faced the consequences.

But the difference between a soldier in the army who “follows orders” and a slave who has no choice but to follow orders is immense and hard to comprehend unless you yourself have been enslaved.

If a soldier disobeys an order there are repercussions but if that order goes against what Christ has ordered, Christ trumps even the commander in chief.  Who happens to be Trudeau here in Canada.  And for the Americans watching…Christ trumps even Trump’s orders.

What James is leading with in his opening greeting is that he is no longer simply the brother of Jesus; he is the property of Jesus Christ who has given him this message for the churches.  Paul too used that same term in his greeting to the churches.  He too was a slave of Christ, a messenger who delivered the Master’s orders. Those who received Paul or James messages were to follow though as though they heard it from Christ’s own lips.  James spoke as the Lord’s messenger.

And so with all that in mind, it is widely agreed that the Lord’s own Brother, who by then lead the Church at Jerusalem was the same one who wrote this epistle to the churches.

Did you happen to notice that little detail in the opening greetings?  James addresses this letter to all the believing brothers scattered throughout the world.  This is quite unlike Paul who seemed to write a specific group of people in a specific place (cf. Rom. 1, Gal. 1, Eph. 1 etc.)   Even though James mentions the Jewish people by referencing “1   …the twelve tribes scattered among the nations…” he is actually writing you and I.  He just didn’t know us at the time!   Truth is he just didn’t know most of the people he was writing to because he was just following orders as best he could.  The rest was up to the Master Who gave the orders to figure out.

Isn’t that comforting?  Really there is peace in following divine authority. Including the authorities that God has placed over us.  But remember your first allegiance always goes to God and to Jesus Christ our Lord.

As James addressed those “twelve tribes scattered” he is helping even us to remember that it was through persecution, from people like Saul of Tarsus, that caused the believers in Jerusalem to scatter throughout the world.  Perseverance in the faith regularly requires stepping out in faith to wherever the Lord may lead.  Even to a new geographical location.  Perseverance isn’t simply standing your ground at all cost.  God knew that the persecution would drive the gospel to the ends of the earth and He even allowed that to happen.

It was deadly persecution the kind we see happening in places like Kenya where Al-shabab has continued to attack and murder Christians.  In fact, it doesn’t seem to matter to those terrorists if the relief agency is Christian or not, they carry out their murderous intent on any who they perceive to be standing in their way.   Muslim, Christian, atheist, children, pregnant women, old widows…they care not…just collateral damage.   But the Christians in those radical Muslim communities are often singled out and murdered simply because they were known as those who call Jesus their Lord.

What would you do if you were in their place?  Would you tit for tat?  Eye for eye?  Maybe withhold desperately needed supplies?  Perhaps you’d run away as many NGOs have chosen to do? And I don’t blame them a bit.  They came to help, bring relief, not add to the security risk of those in greatest need.  But what if those folks are your neighbours and frankly you don’t have resources to run away?

We could see in their eyes it was very discouraging not to mention very frightening for the people we met and talked with, even in Kitale, which was far from where the worst of it was happening.   Security was high there.  Yet, over the past five years, we felt the difference and increasing tensions that even our presence was making.

We were always looking around and vigilant on what was going on.  If you came to a crowded area, you tried to get through it quickly without drawing any attention to yourself.  We hired guards for major events but frankly even our comings and goings brought increased risk to our hosts.

Every day in Nairobi there are car jacking’s going on that the police seem powerless to prevent.  Those aren’t necessarily religiously motivated crimes but just the sort of violence that one lives with while travelling in Kenya.  And Kenya is one of the more prosperous, peaceful nations in Africa!      Suffice it to say that our Christian brothers and aid workers scattered throughout Kenya know trials of many kinds.

James says, 2  Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds…” (James 1:2 (NIV).   Seems a bit sadistic doesn’t it?  How can trials that caused the scattering of the twelve tribes, many who moved in fear for their lives, how can that ever be considered pure joy?  What on earth was James talking about back then?

Yet as we look at world news today we can see that this epistle is also for our day and age.  So completely relevant!  I can safely say that it is relevant to 100% of the human race, 100% of the time.  I say that because James is talking about “trials of many kinds”(2).  Not just religious persecution, though that is certainly a trial.  He’s talking about those times when the pressure is on from many things that put us to the test.  Those times when the test is as much on the inside as the outside.

Which of us has had a perfectly peaceful life where everything just worked the first time round and nothing ever disturbed our peace of mind?  Those of you living that delusion can leave now but the rest of us need to read why James said those intense times of testing can produce pure joy.

Yes pure joy, not fake joy.

He’s talking about purity as a process like the process that gold or silver goes through after it’s found in the ground before it is assayed and stamped. It goes though many steps but in the end it is 999.9 pure.  The purer it registers the more it’s worth.  And James says this joy is going to be worth choosing because of its outcome.

Now he’s not talking about pure happiness here, though often joy has that as a byproduct.  Yet happiness is fleeting at best.  It comes and goes with our emotional thought processes.

What James is talking about is more elemental, like pure gold.  You can’t over purify gold.  When you remove all the dross and other base elements and all you have left is gold, it’s pure gold!

Well 99.999% pure.  There is actually no such thing as 100% pure but you can get it extremely close if you refine it enough times.

Those trials of many kinds produce something elemental in us that frankly can not be taken away.  It only improves the assay or proves the genuineness in us.

When we are in the midst of a trial we can make a choice to count it as pure joy, 3  …because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance”.

The truth is you don’t know you have faith unless your faith is tested.  And you don’t really want to find that out the hard way, right?

When you stand before the Lord at the judgement the last thing you want to hear is that your faith was found wanting.  You want the assay stamp that says, “well done good and faithful servant”.

When I was a kid I spent a few summers at my sister’s place near Salmon Arm.  And one day when I was up climbing the hills near her house I came across this huge piece of gold.

Or at least that’s what I thought I had found.  I was so ecstatic that I carried that heavy boulder down the hill all the way back to my sister’s house.  And I happily announced I had struck it rich.  Oh happy day!

When my brother-in-law came home he laughed at me when I told him how rich we were.  But I was pretty sure he had it wrong until I took it to an expert.  His mother owned a store and she sold those fake gold rings for $1.  It was then at about age seven or eight that I learned that there was something called “fools gold” or more technically, Iron Pyrite.   She assured me that what I found was a very big piece of “fool’s gold”.   But it sure did look like the real McCoy to me.   The pursuit of happiness is a very big piece of fool’s gold.  Every time you thing you’ve found it, it fails the test and it lets you down.

Later on in life when I became a goldsmith I knew how my brother-in-law could so easily recognize the fake.  It shined like gold that was already purified and polished and not at all like the gold that you find in the ground.  It was all show but would not stand up to the heat in the refining process.

You see happiness can be deceiving, maybe even worthless, but faith that perseveres through trails of many kinds can’t be faked and is more valuable than gold.

As a goldsmith when I didn’t have enough of the correct karat of gold to finish a casting I would sometimes take old rings or scrap gold and refine it. Depending on what karat it was that I needed I might have to remove other metals to bring it up to the proper karat.  To do this I would heat the gold to a molten state so the dross and impurities would float to the surface and be removed.  You add a little borax or soda ash and you can literally float the impurities off.  The process takes time and tremendous heat to complete.  So most of the time it is done by a refining company because they can do multiple passes and test and make sure they got all the impurities (like silver and copper, pallidum, and platinum) out of the gold.  The more passes they made the purer the gold.

I know of no other way to make gold pure.  And it always has to be tested to prove its purity.  You can’t just look at it and know.  You might be able to recognize the fake but you can’t possibly measure the purity without testing it.

If you take your ring or pendant off and look on the underside, you’ll find the assay stamp.  The number there tells how pure it is and the name or logo there tells you that it was properly tested to be that pure.

James says, perseverance under trial is God’s way of assaying or testing your faith.  Each trial brings impurities to the surface which must be removed so that the end result is purer.

James wrote, “4  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4 (NIV).

99.999% pure.  Perseverance is not the removal of the trial but the removal of the dross.  The more trials you go through the more mature or pure you become in your faith.  Yet age alone doesn’t produce maturity.  I’ve met too many immature old Christians to know that for sure.  You can tell the difference between those who have by faith persevered and those who have tried everything possible to avoid the refinement process.  Yet even a well seasoned Christian who has persevered through the fires will never be perfect this side of heaven.  They just begin to show in increasing measure the elements of their faith:  Love joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self control.

So next time you find yourself complaining about your circumstances remember that God hasn’t finished refining your faith and what you are seeing as undesirable is the dross that has yet to be removed. Give it time, God’s not done yet.

 (1)  But now, this is what the LORD says– he who created you…he who formed you, … “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. (2)  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. (3)  For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; … (4)  Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, …(5)  Do not be afraid, for I am with you; … (18)  “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. (19)  See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland…  “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” (Isaiah 43:1-5, 18-19,25 (NIV).

And to that end I hope you and I will prosper much this year through whatever trials that come our way. AMEN!

Dig deeper:  Read it again: James 1:1-4

  1. Why James?  Which James was it?
  2. How did they get the message to the twelve tribes?
  3. Define pure joy?
  4. What caused the scattering?
  5. Does perseverance and discipline go hand and hand.
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