James 4

James 4 deals with a few issues: quarrelling and fighting; not receiving what you want from God; not following the world’s pattern; life with the Spirit; humility; true repentance; slander; and finally, arrogance. It quickly moves from one topic to the other, but James manages to link them all.

The quarrelling and fighting is caused by our sinful nature, envy and desires. These desires are a result of not receiving what we want from God, such as wisdom. Of course, it is proper to ask God for things, but James points out that his readers ask these things for selfish reasons: self-indulgence or for superiority. Therefore, God does not grant these things. Rather we should be asking, in prayer, in humility and for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

He then goes to rebuke people for following the world’s pattern. That is one of selfishness, egocentric behaviour and a sense of entitlement. It does make me think about modern Western society. (Especially when we consider the response of simple things such as having to wear masks in the face of COVID-19. ) It seems that personal rights, freedoms, liberties, comforts take a higher importance than obeying Scripture. This, of course, means careful consideration about appropriate responses to oppression. (I do not think there’s a Biblical argument to not fight against injustices. I’m just not yet sure how.)

James then reminds us, that we are to embrace the way of God and the indwelling of the Spirit within us. This is where we humbly acknowledge our sinful nature, and with a grief and burden from sin, cry out to God. James, here, does not ask us to be miserable but instead recognise the gravity and repugnance of our sin. The joy comes in knowing that we are given grace and that God lifts us out of our sinful state.

This humility makes us realise that we cannot slander others, because we don’t have a leg to stand on. Who are we to condemn others when we know the full state of sin within our own hearts? We perhaps only know a few of the sins of our neighbours; but if we were honest about ourselves, we truly know how terrible and sinful we truly are.

The humility also has another response: that we are aware our lives and times are God’s and not our own. Of course, 2020 has been a huge lesson in this. We are to know that we are living within God’s will, so therefore must be humble and not boastful. We cannot say that are plans are certain and not make huge boasts about business ventures or mighty schemes. Because, we simply do not know what tomorrow brings.

Reflection questions

  1. What are my motives when I ask for something in prayer?
  2. How do we put obedience, submission and scripture over person desires, wants and ambitions?
  3. How do we acknowledge God’s will in what we do?

James 3

This chapter looks at words and wisdom. James continues to explore the idea of the tongue being dangerous. Words are powerful, as it tells us throughout scripture. The universe was born into creation by God’s word, and this power to use our words, although obviously not as strong, is shown in us. Therefore, we must be extremely wise in how we use our words.

However, our tongues are evil and hard to control. We gossip, lie, bad-mouth people. These people we are gossiping about or criticising are inherently praiseworthy, because they are made in the image of God. Therefore, we should seek to encourage, bless and build with our words.

If we produce evil from our lips, then that is the fruit of what we are. Our praises to God are tainted and defiled by this – as the same lips that produced words of evil are attempting to produce pure, good words. It reminds me of Isaiah’s lips being cleansed by the hot coal. We all need that and to humbly come before the throne, asking for our lips to be purified.

We also need to be humble in deeds, as this reveals our wisdom. Wisdom is not merely an academic pursuit, but one that results in goodness, unity and others being encouraged too. Therefore, we need to make sure that our wisdom is used to build the church, not to bring each other down.

James 2

James 2 starts off with ideas of justice and fairness, looking at the idea of favouritism. In the Roman period, rich people were given a higher legal status and generally treated better. This behaviour was not, however, Biblical, so James was condemning it.

Furthermore, James explores the idea that God gives the poor a rich faith and they also will inherit the kingdom. This reminds us of the famous words of Jesus that it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to inherit the kingdom of God. It makes me wonder how many church goers activity associate with the poor (I don’t mean soup kitchens)? Why is the church always seen as a place where you dress your best and make sure your face is clean and scrubbed? I feel like we have perhaps lost sight of the idea that churches are meant to be messy, difficult and inclusive. I wonder whether the desire for propriety has robbed us of something far richer.

Verses 12-13 are somewhat reassuring to me. As a teacher I always struggled with the conflict between judgement and mercy. My bent is always to be merciful, but others can be a bit more exact in their application of the rules. The idea that mercy triumphs over judgement is helpful. Also, that is definitely seen in the cross of Jesus Christ: God’s mercy triumphed over judgement; Jesus had to endure an agonising death to ensure it would happen.

James’ statement about needing deeds may seem on a surface level to contradict Paul’s teaching of faith leading to grace rather than our deeds leading to grace. However, they are all a part of the same process. Our faith causes us to receive an underserved grace. This grace is transformative and powerful, resulting in a passionate, fruitful outworking of the Holy Spirit’s activities in us. This is the deeds aspect. Therefore, our faith needs to have deeds too.

Reflection Questions

  1. How does the church integrate and welcome people from all walks of life?
  2. How do we prevent the “Sunday best” culture in our churches?
  3. How do I get the balance between judgement and mercy right?
  4. What deeds are there in my life that show the fruit of grace?

James 1

James is named after its author, rather than its recipient, as in some of the other letters. It is likely that this is James, the brother of Jesus. This letter is also probably addressed to Christians of a Jewish heritage, given its style and its content. (Thank you, Biblegateway plus for the wealth of information!)

The first verse talks about the tribes of Israel scattered among the nations. The original context is a) a play on words (James is English for Jacob, one of the tribes b) reverent c) referencing prophesies. So in that one line, you can see how rich that text is. However, as some reading it in a cafe in Phnom Penh, it has a significance for me: linking both the past and present. It’s often hard to consider ourselves as a part of the story of the Old Testament, but we very much are.

James does not hold back any punches. Between verses 4-8 James addresses:

  • perseverance and joy in the face of temptations
  • perseverance leading to maturity and completion in faith
  • asking for and receiving wisdom in generous portions
  • believing that you will receive the wisdom
  • those who doubt are double-minded and shouldn’t expect wisdom from God.

Then verses 9-11 discuss how those that are humble are exalted, but riches wither and fade humiliating those in high position (this humiliation, James ironically notes, is something to take pride in). James was the leader of the church of Jerusalem, where urban slums would have existed. Furthermore, the Jews during James’ time were persecuted, leading to poverty, so it was likely many of his readers were facing great difficulties.

However, once again, it definitely speaks to me as someone currently living in a country that faces poverty. I don’t want to fall into the trap of simplifying the difficulties of the poor or using the cliched “they are so grateful for what they have”. That being said, the outworking of these verses about perseverance is evident. The faith of the believers in Cambodia, who do need to overcome these struggles, is far richer and deeper and simultaneously more simple in their assertions. They say God helps them. There doesn’t seem to be the caveats or scepticism you might see elsewhere. Maybe it is this that is the humiliation of the rich: our poorer faith.

James, again, not holding back, blames anyone who fails to resist temptation. Circumstances, difficulties and, certainly not, God do not cause people to fall into sin. Our desires and the fulfilment of those desires does.

James reminds us of God’s goodness and generosity. Only good gifts come from God, so the bad is not from God. One of the gifts is grace and rebirth, which we must remember in times of temptation.

Verses 19-26 are also highly practical. It’s based around the idea of listening, but leads onto the idea that we should listen to what the word tells us and act on it. It calls out hypocrisy, saying those that listen to the word but don’t act are like those who can’t remember their own reflections after looking in a mirror.

It also challenges me about the future. I will be doing a lot of training over the next few years (including an MA). This makes me reflect on how I should put these ideas into practise and not treat it just as an academic exercise.

These verses are also interesting, telling people to hush their mouths and don’t be hasty to speak in anger. Given the context of the time was a lot of angry and revolutionary Jewish people, this is counter cultural. It also makes me wonder about how Christians respond to the Black Lives Matter and issues those that are oppressed and persecuted. Again, this gives rise to questions about a theology of oppression and justice, one that I haven’t really thought about or formulated for myself. But, evidently, thoughtless, angry and ill-considered statements aren’t the way forward. I think, however, James asks for a practical response rather than one of just words: in the last verse of the chapter he asks for the care of orphans and widows.

Reflection Questions

The process of blogging about my Bible reading seems to more often create questions rather than answers. I decided to make a note of them here, so I can hopefully go back to them and answer them. I might even do some posts where I try to reflect on them and give my personal thoughts.

  • How do I persevere in times of trials?
  • How do I live with humility despite being from a privileged Western background?
  • Who or what do I blame for my failures?
  • How do I make sure I put teachings into practise?
  • How should I respond with words and action to injustices in this world?

Philemon 1

Philemon 1 is an interesting letter in many ways. First, it’s short but actually it’s the length of the average letter during the Roman times. Second, the subject matter is fascinating, and answers some of the difficulties we have with other passages written by Paul. In Titus, for example, Paul writes that slaves should obey their masters. However, here we see the same issue but from a different standpoint.

It seems that Philemon is a slave owner (which was exceptionally common in the Roman period), and Paul is writing on the behalf of one of his slaves. Onesimus appears to be Philemon’s slave, that has probably escaped and sought Paul out. Paul, from his imprisonment, has written to Philemon petitioning him to show clemency towards Onesimus and even to secure his release from slavery.

Philemon is a church leader, his wife is probably Apphia and Archippus is possibly a fellow leader in the church. Here we have a short insight into a house church set-up in the Roman Empire.

I think that this letter is particularly helpful in looking at relationships between believers and how to address issues effectively. I think it’s also interesting in how it treats the issue of slavery. He calls a slave his brother. Furthermore, it’s how Paul asks for obedience, which is definitely against our culture, despite the fact that Philemon was probably of a higher social status than Paul. So, it really makes me consider how well we respond to requests from leaders in church today.

Titus 3

Again, this chapter discusses the behaviour of those in Crete. But it also tells you the reason: because they have put their trust in Jesus. Our faith means there are implications in how we live. We should be obedient to authority and should live peaceably with one another.

It tells us how before we were enslaved by our passions, hatred and pleasures. But now, in our new life, we are free to be obedient to God. This idea is definitely counter cultural (at least in the west). You have curly calligraphy signs or t-shirts that tell us to follow our passions, listen to our hearts. But, when these are not in line with the will of God, they are foolish and they result in slavery.

Verses four to seven explain the mechanism of grace:

  • It is not through our deeds;
  • God our Saviour showed his love and kindness;
  • By the Holy Spirit with are given rebirth and renewal;
  • This power of the Holy Spirit is received generously through Jesus Christ;
  • We are justified by grace;
  • We become God’s heirs;
  • We have hope of eternal life.

The reason Paul reiterates this is so that they know why they seek to do good: because we are recipients of rebirth, renewal, love, kindness, grace and eternal life. When we devote ourselves to good, they profit not only ourselves but everyone. It ensures our lives are productive and that we are able to live according to the gifts we received. This is the witness we have available to us.

Verses nine to eleven talk about divisive, argumentative people. The fact that this is mentioned throughout Paul’s letters suggests it is not an isolated problem. In fact, it pretty much warns us it’s a problem we need to be prepared for. Churches will not be full of perfect harmony, it turns out, so we need to be on our guard against divisiveness.

So, I pray that I can be focused on doing good, promoting unity and having a productive life.

Titus 2

Here, Paul tells Titus how he is to instruct pretty much every aspect of society. He’s already discussed leaders and those who preach an incorrect message in the previous section. Now he discusses old men, old women, young women, young men and slaves.

What’s interesting about this chapter is that it discusses common stereotypes (older, gossiping drunk women; lazy, argumentative slaves), and tells them to counter these stereotypes in how they live. A lot of the ideals mentioned were in fact Greek ideals (being busy at home, for instance), so it’s perhaps a lesson of how we need to be seen as upright not only in a Christian context, but also the context in which we live. Titus was in Crete, a Greek island which had a reputation of being somewhat immoral. Therefore, it was important that the Christians there were an example.

The importance of this is in verse 10 and 11. We are to make the teachings about God attractive so that more may be saved. The grace of God is for everyone, therefore, we should let no one despise us. We were redeemed from wickedness, we are purified and should be eager to do good.

Titus 1

The first few verses of Titus are packed full of Biblical truths and also facts about Paul himself. We find this out about Paul:

  • He’s a servant and apostle;
  • He’s furthering the faith of God’s elect;
  • He’s furthering their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness;
  • He has a hope and promise of eternal life;
  • Preaching has been entrusted to him;
  • He is following the command of God

We learn these theological facts too:

  • God elects people;
  • God does not lie;
  • God promised eternal life from before the beginning of time;
  • God brought this to light;
  • God gives commands;
  • God is our saviour.

And all that is in just three verses.

Paul left Titus in Crete to appoint elders. Like in other books, Paul lists the requirements of elders. The list is quite long and I doubt I tick all the boxes (yet).

This chapter also talks about rebuking and silencing those who talk dishonestly. Verse 15 tells us, “To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure.” This is quite confusing, so I used my new subscription to Biblegateway.com to look at their study tools. It is referring to the idea that certain things are pure/impure. But because we have been sanctified by Jesus, these ideas no longer apply to us. And even what could be considered pure would be come impure by those who don’t believe, because they do not have the power of Jesus’ resurrection in them.

2 Timothy 4

Again, Paul discussed the importance of perseverance and of integrity, especially in keeping with the word of God. It reminds us how important consistent and faithful study of the Word is. It also tells us how we should pursue it expecting the Holy Spirit to inform us, not our culture or those preaching it. There is a long history of people distorting scripture for their own purposes or so that people would want to listen. We must remember that God is the ultimate authority on Scripture, so it’s his opinion on it that matters.

Paul talks about his difficulties again: being poured out, abandoned, cheated by those around him. He still notes how God was faithful in these circumstances. Again, it reminds us that the approval of man is not worth seeking, but it is God, who will sustain and strengthen us, who we should endlessly pursue. I am definitely a people pleaser, and forget that it is God that I should be pursuing, although he is always to pursue me first.

2 Timothy 3

This talks about the terrible times in the last days. I someways, the words seem scarily familiar. I’m not going to start shouting “the end is nigh!” on the street corner, but it does make me think about the state of the word. It’s also strange how something written thousands of years ago can go so far to capture the world today.

It characterises the people during these times as

  • lovers of themselves
  • lovers of money
  • boastful
  • proud
  • abusive
  • disobedient to their parents
  • ungrateful
  • unholy
  • without love
  • unforgiving
  • slanderous
  • without self-control
  • brutal
  • not lovers of the good
  • treacherous
  • rash
  • conceited
  • lovers of pleasure rather than God.

Now, that’s quite a list. I feel like, especially in the media, a lot of these attributes are present, if not even celebrated. Even a few powerful and famous people come to mind.

I think, however, the important message of this section is not giving us a way to point the finger. Rather, it is to check ourselves as Christ’s holy body and to make sure that we are far removed from these things.

In the second half of the chapter, Paul reminds us of his persecutions and tells us we will be persecuted. These types of statements always worry me, but not in the way you think. I have experienced very little persecution in my life, so it makes me wonder if I’m doing it all wrong.

The chapter ends with describing the importance of the Bible:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3: 14-17

Therefore, if we want to be effective in anything we do of any significance, it and we must be rooted in the word of Christ.