Series: Steadfast Joy
- Aug 09, 2020
- Mark Vroegop
- James 1:1-3
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness (James 1:1–3, ESV)
In March, I read a very helpful article by Andy Crouch on navigating the leadership challenges inside and outside the church during this global pandemic. His piece is entitled Leading Beyond the Blizzard, and he provides a metaphor that I’ve found helpful in this challenging season.
Crouch suggests that we need to consider if the global pandemic and all the ripple effects of it should be compared to a blizzard, winter, or ice age. Having lived in Michigan, I’m all too familiar with the challenges of blizzards and long winters. Back in March, I was hoping this would be a blizzard. But it’s become more like winter. Here’s what Crouch says:
The bottom line is that even as we weather the current blizzard, and convince others that a blizzard is upon us, all of us should be preparing for a winter in which countless aspects of our society are reconfigured. Even in the mild weeks, life will be radically different from what it was just a few weeks ago; and as with winter in the northern US, at any time a storm could arise that brings life entirely to a halt.
At first, there was a sense of togetherness—similar to what happens when a storm hits. People rally to help and support each other. But now it’s almost as if a national “seasonal affective disorder” has descended upon us. It reminds me of living in West Michigan in the later months of winter. People were struggling. They battled with sadness. They were mad – a lot. I was reluctant to vote on anything at church because there was a “no” culture that just took over from the long winter.
The reality in West Michigan is what I feel everywhere right now—don’t you?
Life is hard. Relationships are strained. Trust erodes quickly. Suspicion is in the air. People are quick to take sides on just about everything. And that’s why I thought a slow, verse-by-verse walk through the book of James would be helpful right now. I need to be reminded of how to follow Jesus with steadfast joy when obedience is hard. I hope that the book of James will help us not just survive this complicated, layered, and painful time; but, I pray it will help us thrive.
The Story Behind the Book of James
Every book of the Bible has a story, and you need to understand what’s behind this book. Let’s start with the author.
In verse one, the writer identifies himself as James. Most scholars believe there is strong evidence that James was the half-brother of Jesus and he pastored the church in Jerusalem. Now think about why those two things would be important.
After Jesus was born, Joseph and Mary had children. Mark 6:3 names James, Joses, Judas, and Simon, and John 7:5 tells us that they didn’t believe in him during his earthly ministry. But at some point, James came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. He identifies himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1). Think of what a statement that is when you know that he grew up with Jesus.
Eventually, James became a leader in the church. Peter, after his deliverance from prison, refers to James (Acts 12:17). James met with Paul after he was converted and extended the “right hand of fellowship” (Gal. 2:9). He’s a key leader when the church wrestled with the role of the law with Gentile converts in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13). And, he received Paul in Acts 21 as he reported about the work of ministry to the Gentiles.
According to church historians, he was called “James the Just” because of his deep commitment to obeying the Jewish law and his constancy in prayer. And, he was killed in 62 AD by the scribes and Pharisees for not renouncing Jesus as the Messiah.
James was the pastor of the Jerusalem church, so you could imagine that it was a church with influence and that its primary ministry was to Jews. That probably explains why we read “to the twelve tribes” (v. 1). James’s audience would resonate with the metaphor even after they became Christians.
The book is a pastoral letter written to help believers, especially Jewish believers, follow Jesus faithfully during hard times.
Now there’s more you need to know about this book, but it relates to three key questions that we need to answer in the text:
- What does James call them to do?
- When are they called to do it?
- Why should they do it?
Called to Do? Count It All Joy
The first words after the introduction are strong exhortations meant to bolster the faith of Christians who are suffering (more on this later). As we study this book, we’ll find that it’s filled with instructions and commands. That’s part of the reason why it’s so helpful. James is direct. According to Doug Moo, “The book has a greater frequency of imperatives than any other New Testament book. His purpose is not so much to inform but to command, exhort, and encourage.”
However, James is also tender and creative. He calls his readers “brothers and sisters” fourteen times, and he uses a variety of metaphors to make his points clear and understandable. If you’d read the book, you’ll know about his reference to a bit in a horse’s mouth, the rudder of a ship, a forest fire, and looking into a mirror. James tenderly commands people.
The book begins with these words: “Count it all joy, brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” What do these first few words – “count it all joy” – mean?
Let’s start with the word “count.” It means to consider, to reckon, or to evaluate. The word indicates an intentional evaluation. In fact, in some cases, the word is translated as lead and guide. Let me give you two examples:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves (Phil. 2:3).
Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (2 Thess. 3:15).
The word “count” relates to how you think and evaluate something. But there’s a particular angle here that’s important to note. “Count” is used for a kind of thinking that leans the opposite direction of where you might normally go. For example, in Philippians 2 selfish ambition, conceit, and considering yourself as important is the normal way humans think. Paul says, “…count others more significant than yourselves” (v. 3).
Other uses of the word are translated as ruler or leader (see Matt. 2:6 and Heb. 13:7). It would seem that “to count” could be thought of as intentionally leading your mind and heart, or going the opposite direction of what would be typical to do.
Think of a weather reporter during a hurricane. The winds are blowing and she’s leaning into the force of the wind in order to resist. She’s resisting against the force on purpose. That’s how our thinking needs to be, especially right now. I was talking with a friend who has his pulse on what is happening in the Evangelical church right now. He suggested that there’s a convergence of multiple issues in three categories—theology, politics, and culture. They are interwoven together. We have sources of information in each. And depending on who you listen to, what is most important to you, and where you spend the most time, conversations are different—and often hard—depending on their starting point. Our thinking and emotions are often instantaneous right now. This is an important moment to slow down, think carefully, and lean into what it means to follow Jesus during hardship.
Now, the “counting” in our text is designed to produce joy. This is more than being happy. It’s more than feeling emotionally positive. “Joy” is the deep-seated, God-centered orientation of your soul that looks through life’s hardships and sees God’s purposes. “Joy” means embracing the trials, not for what they are, but for what God could accomplish through them. Hardship presents an opportunity for the genuineness of faith to be put on full display (1 Pet. 1:7); to embrace God’s loving discipline to make us like Jesus (Heb. 12:1-11); and, to embrace a life of suffering like Jesus (Matt. 5:11-12; Heb. 13:12-13).
Christianity was made for hardship. Trials and testing are when our beliefs matter most. Here’s what Dave Furman said:
We can fight for joy in our trials because God is working on our hearts, pruning us more into the image of Christ. It may feel like you’re being chopped up, but the divine gardener is pruning you so that you bear more fruit in your life than you could ever ask for or imagine.
What are we do to? Count it all joy.
When? In Trials of Various Kinds
The second truth that we see here is how James wants believers to apply this. Counting it all joy is to be applied to the various trials. James is writing to a group of people dealing with many different challenges. And isn’t that true for us right now? It’s not just one issue, it’s four or five or six. Often, they are interconnected.
It’s the same case for the people to whom James is writing. Remember that in verse one he called them “the Dispersion”? The word means to scatter, and it likely refers to the Christians who had fled because of persecution. Acts 11:19 tells us that after the killing of Stephen, Christians were scattered. Now, this worked to spread the gospel outside of Israel, but it wasn’t easy.
Additionally, there was a famine that struck Israel around 46 AD (Acts 11:28). According to Doug Moo, there was serious social-political-religious turmoil that eventually led to a war with Roman forces from 66-70 AD. Further, Moo suggests that given what James writes, it would appear his readers were poor, taken advantage by the wealthy (5:4-6), hauled in court (2:6), scorned for their faith (2:7), and trying to hang on to what they believed (5:7-11).
The book not only helps us understand the various trials they faced, but it’s a good reminder that trials are common. It doesn’t make them enjoyable. It has been interesting to me how much energy I’m spending dealing with the “shock” of trials. I’ve found it helpful when I read this text in 1 Peter:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you (1 Peter 4:12).
Here’s what Spurgeon said:
So, if our afflictions tend, by trying our faith, to breed patience, and that patience tends to make us into perfect men in Christ Jesus, then we may be glad of trials. Afflictions by God’s grace make us all-around men, developing every spiritual faculty, and therefore they are our friends, our helpers, and should be welcomed with “all joy.”
It has been helpful to me, as I’ve studied this text, to remind myself that trials can be hard, but I need to stop expending emotional energy on being disappointed with the trial. Why am I surprised? I need to embrace that trials come in various ways and various kinds.
I’ve also found it helpful to remind myself about the nature of our trials. Life is hard right now. But consider how other believers around the world are faring. Just hearing about the challenges in Lebanon helped me to do a reset.
Life is uncomfortable. More trials will surely come. But this text tells me that I can lean into challenges with a different kind of perspective.
Having moved from the what to the when, we now come to the why. What is the encouragement that James gives to his readers and us? Verse 3 is very clear: “…for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”
The word for “test” is the same word that Peter uses in reference to “…the tested the genuineness of your faith” (1 Pet. 1:7). It refers to how fire is refined. It is proven by hardship and difficulty. Do you hear that? Hardship proves what kind of people we are! It validates the substance of our faith and demonstrates the depth of what we believe.
But in this text, it produces steadfastness. That’s important. It’s the word for perseverance, endurance, and the ability to continue. “This is not a meek, passive submission to circumstances, but a strong, active, challenging response in which the satisfying realities of Christianity are proven in practice.”
How do you learn endurance? By enduring. How do you develop perseverance? By bearing up under trials. How do you develop steadfastness? By patiently developing the ability to wait upon God while you are in the middle of challenging seasons.
In the same way that a weightlifter might hold a weight for a few seconds to allow the resistance to build more muscle, so, too, spiritual testing produces a greater level of endurance. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but we can rest knowing that it’s not pointless.
So, this week, as you consider how to live out the book of James, let me give you three exhortations:
- Believe: Jesus not only rescues people from their sin, but he also promises to help them when they are suffering. You are not alone.
- Count: Lean into, not away from, what God is doing even in hardship.
- Rejoice: Make it your habit this week to live in joy. Help others to do the same.
Trials will come. Jesus is still on the throne. And by his grace, we can walk through difficulty with a steadfast, joyful obedience.
Ó College Park Church
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce this material in any format provided that you do not alter the content in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: by Mark Vroegop. Ó College Park Church - Indianapolis, Indiana. www.yourchurch.com
 Douglas J. Moo, James: An Introduction and Commentary, ed. Eckhard J. Schnabel, Second edition, vol. 16, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2015), 32–33.