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A diamond mine of practical Christian teaching

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THE New Testament letter of James, far from being ‘an epistle of straw’ with ‘nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it’ as Martin Luther dismissed it in 1522, is actually full of Christian grace and truth. The Book of Common Prayer epistle reading for today, the Fourth Sunday after Easter, is taken from James:

‘Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls’ (James 1v17-21 – King James Version).

The author of this epistle gives no details about himself other than stating at the start that he is ‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’. But a strong candidate for author is James, the half-brother of Jesus, who by around AD 49 had become leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem. The book of Acts records his statesmanlike intervention when hardline members of the Jerusalem church wanted to impose strict adherence to the Law of Moses on Gentile Christians:

‘Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood’ (Acts 15v19-20).

James was writing to counter the disorder and divisions caused by the arrogant attitudes and behaviours of the affluent and, in secular terms, powerful members of the Christian churches, possibly in Roman Judea, which he was addressing. He was not afraid to put rich people in their place: For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: so also shall the rich man fade away in his ways’ (James 1v11).

The context of the Prayer Book passage today is James’s reminder to his readers that God is not to blame for the temptations to which  sinful human nature too often yields:

‘Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. Do not err, my beloved brethren’ (James 1v13-16).

In contrast to sinful human beings, God is immutably good, James affirmed. He is ‘the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning’. The ‘lights’ James refers to are probably the sun, the moon and the stars which according to the creation story in Genesis, God set in the ‘firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night’. Unlike these created lights, whose visibility from a human perspective varies, the unseen Creator’s character and purposes are never changing.

It was by means of his immutable word, his Gospel of eternal salvation, proclaimed in Israel and beyond by the apostolic witnesses of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection, that God had given these 1st Century Christians spiritual life: ‘Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.’

The fixed will of God revealed in the Gospel of their salvation was why James’s readers needed to repent of the selfish behaviours that were ruining their relationships and ‘receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls’.

That is the key exhortation in this epistle, which is a diamond mine of practical Christian teaching and takes less than half an hour to read in full. A right response to God’s word, namely humble obedience, is crucial if the Christian believer is to be saved for eternity when Christ returns. Later in his letter, James urged his readers to ‘be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh’ (James 5v8).

The Collect for today faithfully reflects James’s theology: ‘O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’

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Julian Mann
Julian Mann
Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Heysham, Lancashire.

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