the book of james

The book of James and the gospel of Matthew are the two most Jewish books of the New Testament. Many scholars believe evidence suggests there were actually written versions of these book in either Hebrew or Aramaic that were later translated into Greek. They were certainly written to Jews who shared the same worldview and language of the author. If that’s true, then these books give a uniquely clear view into the teachings of Jesus as his first hearers would have understood them. But we’ll only see through this window clearly if we look with Hebrew eyes. Here’s a look at James through Hebrew eyes.


accepting the ride

dave brisbin | 2.28.16
James Series 8: In this final session on the book of James, James makes the transition from more commentary on harmful practices and attitudes among those in his community—speaking ill of each other, arrogantly believing one’s own capacity to control circumstances independently of God, swearing—back to prayer and submission to God. And in this transition, he comes full circle from the acceptance of life’s difficulties and challenges with which he began, to the acceptance of our most basic relationship with life. 

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From the endurance created by accepting life challenges and working through them to the realization and acceptance of our complete dependence on God for the life we lead. From acceptance to acceptance. James has taken this journey himself, and he is inviting us to take the journey as well. Only one question remains: we will accept the ride?

falling rules

dave brisbin | 2.21.16
James Series 7: James continues to hammer on the theme of making our actions match the ends we seek in Kingdom. He points to counter-kingdom practices and action he witnesses in his community—the fights, quarrels, covetousness—and harshly admonishes his people. But again, we need to resist the temptation to just see more rules to follow here. James tells us to draw near to God, humble ourselves, submit, and allow ourselves to let go and descend into a kind of mourning, a sense of loss of all the things we held dear in order to find what is really dear in life. 

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We have built the idea that kingdom is achieved by following rules, when what Jesus and James are telling us is that kingdom is realized by falling in love—in love with a life that looks like kingdom, so that our behavior matches the kingdom we seek. We need to let the rules fall away so we can fall…into the embrace of the Father.

starting with heaven

dave brisbin | 2.14.16
James Series 6: Continuing to develop his theme of the law of liberty, James is determined that we understand how fully becoming the law as Jesus framed it—the fulfilling of law as opposed to mere rule following—was the embodiment of faith. His famous passage about the power of the tongue comparing it to rudders on ships and bits on horses is a colorful way of restating Jesus’ teaching that it’s not what goes into man that defiles him, but what comes out. It’s tempting to see these admonitions as more rules to follow, but James is trying to convey that we must use the same means as the ends we seek. 

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If we wish to live in the unity of the Father, then we must begin practicing that unity and connection first. Sounds like a catch-22, but only if you think of heaven, understood as God’s ultimate acceptance, as the end of the journey. What if, as Jesus says, the kingdom, God’s acceptance and love is already within? What if heaven isn’t the end of the journey, but the beginning? That would be really Good News.

law of liberty

dave brisbin | 2.7.16
James Series 5: James launches into another major theme of his book, the law of liberty. At first glance, his phrase seems to be an oxymoron—joining two completely contradictory terms. Isn’t law the opposite of liberty? But its very definition, law limits and restricts freedom for the greater good of the group. So what is a law of liberty? James speaks of being a doer of the word and not just a hearer, that action is necessary, that hearing without doing is just another way of saying faith without works is dead. James is zeroing in on the essential point that though law as we understand it, restricts, and such law is not what Jesus or James are teaching. 

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When we follow a law with which we have no connection in terms of purpose and highest good, then our freedoms—things we desire to do–are restricted, but when our purpose and highest good in life has become the same as the law’s purpose and highest good, then in what way are we any longer obeying? We and the law have become one and what we desire to do falls entirely within the code. And when that code fully expresses God’s purpose and highest good, then we are completely free to live life abundantly without restriction…and without ever restricting the liberty of others.

degreeless love

dave brisbin | 1.24.16
James Series 4: James was Jesus’ brother or close relative or friend—the language of the New Testament can mean any of the above—and perhaps because of such closeness, James teaches in much the same style as Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins with the Beatitudes, a picture of the finished product, an end view of the process of kingdom. James also first presents the big, general principles that function the same way. But as does Jesus in the Sermon, James now begins to break down the big concepts into day to day details. How do these principles play out moment by moment? 

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How should we be treating each other in home and synagogue in light of the principles of discernment and judgment? But following the Way is not about following rules, and though James gives us rules, directives for our comportment, he couches it in his concept of the “law of liberty,” a seemingly oxymoronic phrase until you realize that this law is not a law of conformance, but of transformance and moves in an entirely different direction—toward an experience of a completely degreeless love.

full circle

dave brisbin | 1.3.16
James Series 3: Coming back to the book of James after Christmas and the start of a new year, we are reminded that time, all we know of time, the passage of time, is circular. The only reason we know time is passing is because earth and moon, planets and stars turn in their circles. The movement of circles is the movement of time. Life is circular too—circles within circles, and James’ book, taking us on a journey to define life on Jesus’ Way moves in circles as well. His topics don’t neatly lay out along a straight logical line, but recur in circular patterns. At first glance, it seems chaotic and disordered, but as a metaphor for life, it makes perfect sense. 

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Starting with the initial theme of endurance, the acceptance of life on life’s terms, he moves on to wisdom and faith and then patience: the waiting for completion as a gardener waits for rain and soil to do its work, once all the work he can do is done. The serenity of this kind of patience, rooted in the endurance, acceptance, and wisdom of a faith defined as steadfastness brings us full circle, but only in preparation for the next circle to begin.

the effect of endurance

dave brisbin | 12.6.16
James Series 2: James tells us in the opening verses of his book that we should count it all joy when we encounter various difficulties because the testing of our faith produces endurance and the endurance produces a perfect result in which we lack for nothing. James then moves on to talk about asking for wisdom, asking without doubt, persevering to reward, the nature of temptation and presence. If we look at these verses from a Western point of view, we will have a complete misunderstanding of what James is saying in his Eastern way to an Eastern audience. 

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We in the West rely on our eyes rather than our hands looking to form over function; we see life through an intellectual, passive lens rather than an active, experiential one; we see life broken into separate, dualistic compartments and time as a linear segment between endpoints rather an a holistic whole. Unless we can begin to understand that James and his fellows always saw function over form, active experience over passive mental concept, and everything existing in a now moment, we won’t see how “asking” only exists in endurance as a working definition of faith, and how doubt and temptation are not evil or weak but the very elements that make our choices and our faith real, and how reward is never delayed in time but is the experience of enduring through the trial to God’s presence in every moment. We need to see James and Jesus from an Easter point of view—it only changes everything when we do.

the beauty of brokenness

dave brisbin | 11.29.16
James Series 1: James, the brother of Jesus, the man who led the early Jerusalem church for the first thirty years after the crucifixion was the pillar of the Eastern Church and yet is relatively unknown in the West. Western tradition portrays Peter as the head of the early Jewish followers of Jesus, but the East has always maintained James in that position. The book that bears his name was quite possibly a catechism for early Jewish followers and converts and is beautiful in its clarity and brevity and focus on the big questions as well as the essential details of life. Moving nearly verse by verse, we’ll take a look at how James led his brother’s followers through those first difficult years, trying to follow Jesus’ Way through persecution from both Jewish and Roman authorities. 

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And because of that persecution and the religious and cultural upheaval of trying to follow Jesus and Judaism at the same time, it’s no coincidence that the first issue James addresses is that of suffering—of how we are to face the trials and difficulties of life. But to count it all as joy when we are confronted with our challenges speaks to a necessity of the descent into brokenness that precedes the ascent into wisdom and reward. James is telling us there is a beauty to brokenness that we must understand if we’re really to take any further steps along the Way.

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