Four Ways to Preach Jesus from James
So let’s return then to our original question: what should I do with this imperative heavy book? How do I read something so targeted towards my behavior? How, to put it succinctly, do I see Christ and the gospel in James, which seems on the surface far more focused on ethics than it is on Jesus?
In the post I sketch out four approaches to seeing Jesus in this often challenging book.
Jesus Taught These Things
First, and bringing our discussion of wisdom back into the mix, we can point out here that every sage sits at the feet of a master. Every sage is both a student and a master. The sage passes along the wisdom that they inherited from their master. That leads us to a natural question with regard to this book: at whose feet did James sit? And the answer to that question is pretty obvious. Though we find echoes of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and other ancient wisdom literature throughout James, the preeminent sage we encounter in the book is Christ himself.
The echoes of Christ’s teaching resound throughout this short epistle. Time prevents us from exploring this with any detail, but both the content and the style reflects Jesus’ own ministry.1 James often uses phrases that Jesus used, and draws on ideas that Jesus taught, and even borrows metaphors and parables that Jesus spoke. Rather than spell these out, read through the first chapter of James and look for them; or, better yet, go through the whole book again and underline every time you get that feeling “I think I’ve heard this before.” Or even better still, read through the Sermon and the Mount and come back to James; you won’t be disappointed.
Now interestingly, at no point is James directly quoting Jesus in these verses. Yet throughout we find a consistent similarity—an “echo” or impression. This is very consistent with Jewish wisdom literature in James’ day. James is offering a second-order reflection on the tradition of wisdom that he himself received.2 He has heard it and meditated on it and applied it, and now he passes it along to us, after years of personal experience in the course of trial and challenge. It is now James’ wisdom. It is as if James has taken a cutting from the tree of wisdom that Jesus himself cultivated and has now planted it in a new field. The result is something organically connected to that which James received, and yet unmistakably new and different. Jesus is thus James’ teacher and master, and this book is a passing along of what James has learned.
This is the first way that we keep Jesus in focus as we read this book—how we read the book as pointing to Jesus. The gospel is more than just the forgiveness that Christ brings or the redemption that he accomplished. That is part of the gospel, to be sure, but when we preach Christ we also preach what he taught. James gives us the teaching of Jesus applied to the age in which the church finds itself. It is the dissemination of Jesus’ teaching through the mature meditations of his servant James. James then gives us a window into the wisdom of God, wisdom which Jesus passed along to us, and which gives us new birth so that we might be “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (Jas. 1:18).
Jesus Did These Things
Even more than this, James exposits for us the kind of wisdom that Jesus exemplifies in his own life. Jesus not only taught these things, he did them. James tells us to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (2:22). Jesus did the word. He alone did these things perfectly and in perfect righteousness.
We can say even more than this. It is precisely through doing these things—following God’s wisdom in a world full of temptation and persecution—that Jesus was able to endure the cross and come into his glory (Luke 24:26; 1 Peter 1:10-12). He is “the Lord of glory” (2:1), and his path to glory was through wisdom, and in particular the wisdom that embraced humiliation in order to achieve the glory (Jas. 4:6-10).
Take our old friend (or, rather, poisonous enemy!) the tongue, which James discusses at length in James 3:1-12). Jesus tamed his tongue, and because he tamed his tongue he knew when to speak and when to remain silent. He was silent before Pilate. Pilate wanted Jesus to argue, to defend himself, to rail against the injustice of it all. Jesus was silent when the soldiers mocked him on the cross. He was silent when they asked him to call upon the angels to assist him. Jesus knew when it was time to remain silent, and through the wisdom of silence he submitted to the will of God. Jesus demonstrates the efficacy of wisdom applied. Another sage tells us that wisdom is “the fruit of righteousness is a tree of life, and whoever captures souls is wise” (Prov. 11:30). Jesus was wise and through his wisdom pursued righteousness, and so he became the tree of life, engrafting many souls into his person and working.
This is the second way we focus on Christ through the imperatives and instructions of James. We find James not only passing along the teaching of our savior, but describing his character and work. We can read James as a set of imperatives and a guide to life, but we can also read it as a description of the life of the King. It is not just imperative, it is also indicate. When we shine a bright light upon the shape of James, the shadow that is cast is inevitable that of Jesus. So here we meet Jesus yet again because here we find his values and actions described for us. Read James, then, and meditate on how these verses reflect the perfections of your redeemer.
Jesus Enables These Things
And, of course, we are to strive to become an imitator of this same Jesus! We must reflect him in our own lives. How does James help me in this task?
On the one hand, as we noted before, James says almost nothing about the Holy Spirit. Cultivating the filling of the Spirit is Paul’s go-to language for growing in Christ-likeness, but James lacks the descriptiveness of Paul in Romans 6 or Galatians 5. The gospel, Paul says in Rom. 6, is not just about being forgiven, though it certain is about that, it is also about being transformed, and therefore living a new life. It’s about “walking by the Spirit,” and certainly Paul’s vision of what that looks like is very similar to that of James (Gal. 5). James, however, doesn’t explicitly or systematically connect our obedience with Christ’s Spirit-empowerment. He does not say things like “do this through the power of Christ that is at work in you,” and the fact that he doesn’t do that makes James sound legalistic and law-centered, rather than grace-based and Spirit-focused.
To read James’ lack of pneumatology as legalism is a mistake, however. For James, as much as Paul, it is Jesus that enables and empowers obedience, though it is appropriate to recognize that he does not dedicate extended time to that idea (that, after all, is not the purpose of his book, which is to cultivate wisdom not explain theological concepts), nor does he use the same language to get at it as Paul and Peter do (since, as we might expect, James is more content to talk about these matters as Jesus did, and in Jesus’ teaching the work of the Spirit is still veiled). Nevertheless, despite the brevity and diversity of the treatment, the idea that it is only by the power of Jesus that we are enabled to live lives pleasing to God is in the background in James.
You find it in how James talks about the word and the law. The word is wisdom, and it is implanted not just in our heads, but also in our hearts. “Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (1:21). The word and the law go together, and “the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres… he will be blessed in his doing” (1:25). It’s easy to assume that James means the same thing by “law” here as Paul when he uses the term in Galatians. Again, that would be a mistake. Notice that for James it is the “perfect” law. Or, in James 2:8, the “royal law.” Why does he describe it so? One can hardly imagine Paul using such terms (“freedom,” “perfect,” “royal”) to describe the law. Is James speaking of something different? I think so. James is talking about the law as it is interpreted by and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It is royal because it is given by the Messiah, God’s king. It is perfect because it has now been fulfilled in Christ’s person and work. James is referring to what the hymn writer called “the law by Christ fulfilled.”
His topic is therefore different than that of Paul’s in Galatians 2. The point of comparison would be more Galatians 5 or Romans 6. The point is not how we are justified, but rather how we are sanctified (or, to use the language James uses, how we “mature” and become “perfect and complete” (Jas. 1:2-3), and when we talk about the mode and power of sanctification, James describes it as “implanted.” We are given the power of Christ in our hearts. The word is being placed inside of us, planted in our very souls, and only because it has been planted there by the lawgiver are we then able to put these things into practice.
This is the third way we see and preach Christ in James. We are directed again and again to our savior as the word incarnate. It is Christ that we have received, and it is Christ that is at work within us, to do and to will according to his law, which is freedom and life. We can therefore preach the commands of James with integrity, without fear that doing so is legalistic, because we are preaching about the power of Christ to make us like unto him. The work of Christ outside of us (justification, forgiveness) is gospel, but the work of Christ inside us (sanctification, maturation) is no less so.
Jesus Forgives our Failure in These Things
Finally, though it is not a major theme in the epistle, James does remind us that Jesus the lawgiver is also Jesus the judge, and therefore Jesus the redeemer. I have left this until last for two reasons. First, it is in some ways the most obvious and natural for those of us preaching and teaching in protestant circles. When the command comes, our natural response is (and should be!) “I cannot keep that command, Jesus have mercy on me, the sinner.” That is a good application of imperatival texts, and it is also a necessary application, but it is not the only application. In fact, and here we come to the second reason why I put this one last, it’s also not very frequent in James. James assumes this is true, but it’s not the point of his work. He wants us to grow and mature, to become “doers of the word,” and he takes it for granted that we will repent and confess as we fall short.
Yet the forgiveness idea is definitely present. “The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (5:15). It’s hard not to see the tale of the healing of the paralytic in that verse. The same Lord who heals sickness is the Lord who forgives sins (Matt. 9:1-8). The two are connected. As James closes his ethical exhortation, his “program of perfection,” he talks about healing and forgiveness.3 He addresses our brokenness, both physical and spiritual, and he reminds us that Christ is the savior from that brokenness. The Lord will heal; the Lord will forgive. He “gives more grace” (Jas. 4:6).
This is the fourth way we see Christ preached throughout James. The wisdom of James exposes our sins—the words of the wise are like goads (Ecc. 12:11)!—and as it does say it draws us back again to the only one authorized and empowered to forgive those sins, Jesus Christ. This is, as we have already made clear, not the only way to see and teach and preach Christ from James–we also preach Christ as our Rabbi, as our Example, and as our Power—but it is still a good way. In James we encounter Christ our Forgiver.
James, then, is an anthology of wisdom. It is the wisdom of the ancient sages, and of the Great Sage Jesus, distilled through the life, meditation, and experience of the Christ’s servant James for the diaspora church. It thus directs us to Christ our Rabbi, Christ our Example, Christ our Power, and Christ our Forgiver.
- Bauckham’s short book on James is a treasure trove of examples here; Bauckham, R. James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage. London: Routledge, 1999.
- McCartney, D. G. “The Wisdom of James the Just.” Southern Babtist Journal of Theology 4, no. 3 (2000): 52–64.
- Cheung, L. L. The Genre, Composition and Hermeneutics of the Epistle of James. Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster, 2003.