One day four men built a backyard deck. Two men came from the lofty halls of mechanical engineering, two were mechanics of different stripes. As it turned out the deck boards extended past the end of the deck and needed trimming to even up the edge. The engineers measured and discussed how to trim the boards without cutting into the floor joist beneath. They debated and argued over various methods of how to find the exact right place to mark the top of the deck for the power saw to follow. All progress stopped because of this one problem. The mechanics listened for a few moments to the engineer’s discussion. One of them grabbed the power saw and with the help of the other standing beneath to keep an eye on the position of the blade they rapidly trimmed the boards to the right size. True story.
The point of the story is not to put down engineers and elevate the wisdom of mechanics. It is instead meant to provide a touchstone for the difference between theory and application. We, as followers of Jesus often argue about the right way to do things but neglect to ever get them done. We engage in theological arguments and fail to meet the real needs of people. (Do I really need to provide examples?) I find that the New Testament Letter of James has that same kind of get it done attitude as our two mechanics.
We see some early evidence of James’ thinking in the 15th chapter of Acts. Gentiles (non-Jews) were coming to accept Jesus as their Savior and Lord in Antioch and elsewhere. The deck building question was whether these new believers should live like Jews and follow the laws of Moses including circumcision or not. Some Pharisees who had also accepted Jesus maintained that Gentile converts should fully follow the law of Moses. Paul, Barnabas, and Peter maintained that they shouldn’t be burdened with that yoke.
At this time, James, the half-brother of Jesus, was what we would call the lead Pastor at the church in Jerusalem. While there was plenty of debate it was James that provided the practical wisdom to meet its challenge. After quoting an Old Testament prophecy indicating that Gentiles would be drawn into God’s greater kingdom he said, “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.” No call for circumcision, no need to observe Passover and other feast days, or other practices found in the Law of Moses. James’s solution was simple, to the point, and loaded with grace. We find that same kind of practical wisdom in the James’ letter.
The letter itself is addressed to Jewish believers living outside of Judea. Although aimed at Jews James’ instruction is accessible for all believers. James states his purpose early, “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” (James 1:2–4, NLT) A statement that challenges us from the start as we struggle to reconcile troubles, joy, and endurance.
For this study, we won’t be taking a word for word exploration as we have done with other letters. James doesn’t write in Paul’s straight lines but bounces between topics. Brushing up against many of them early, returning to them again later with greater detail. There are seven peaks of practical wisdom we will explore in the coming weeks: wisdom, words, judging, worldly matters, spiritual works, prayer, and patience. In each, we’ll strive to uncover the trouble, the joy, and the endurance. Or to put it another way – how to practically live out the life we have in Christ.