In “preaching study” posts, I share study & reflection as I prepare the Sunday message . I welcome interaction in this process, so feel free to share your thoughts. All Scripture quotes are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted. Thanks!
The NRSV text for James 1:17-18 is here.
I’m preaching the next three weeks in our 5:30pm contemporary service from James 1 & 2.
James is an interesting fellow. Of course, Luther wasn’t a big James fan and wanted this epistle out of the canon of Scripture. But it stayed in and I think we’re better for it. If indeed this is the same James as the brother of the Lord presented in Acts (ch 15 in particular), then it’s kind of thrilling to read what Jesus’ bro had to say.
The content of the letter doesn’t rule out attributing it to this James. Though the author only identifies himself as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” this may be because (a) he wants to emphasize followership primarily, and/or (b) because he’s sufficiently well-known to the intended readers as to need no introduction that spells out who he is more than this. Of course, these don’t prove that the author of James is the brother of the Lord, but they do present a plausible explanation of why it certainly could be him. James also seems to lack some qualities of a letter. Though it has an introduction and greeting, it lacks an ending. One wonders if the closing was lost, if James might be a slightly different genre from “letter,” or if he just didn’t mind breaking the rules, feeling it wasn’t necessary for the people he had in mind while writing. In a way, James reads kind of like the Sermon on the Mount (or the Plain, from Luke) or the early Christian document, The Didache (Greek for “The Teaching”). Whereas Paul typically presents a doctrinal section, then a moral and ethical section that works out implications of the doctrine, or addresses pressing theological concerns that are opposing false teaching, James gets straight to the practical moral and ethical instruction. It’s not that he doesn’t have a theological basis for what he’s saying, he’s just not as concerned to develop it at great length. He’s sprinkling it throughout as he attaches various bases for following the practical instruction he’s giving. Thus, he sounds more like Jesus (according to Matthew and Luke), than like Paul (which is not to downplay Paul).
Getting on to other matters, however.
These two verses follow James’ discussion of trials and temptations–whether or not God tempts someone (wonder what the readers were going through?) and precede instructions about hearing and doing the Word.
In the midst of what I’ve said above, James 1:17-18 are speaking in particular to doctrinal matters in the midst of the instruction he’s just given and what he’s going to continue to address.
I’ve distinguished the verses this way (though not to make too much of it):
1:17 – The Father, the Source of all giving
1:18 – The Father, the Giver of new birth
I’ve said, “new birth,” although the passage simply says “birth.” So, I hope I’m not reading too much into that. I’ll keep that in mind. The striking thing to me about these two verses is the motif of giving. “Give” language appears 3 times in two sentences: “act of giving,” “every perfect gift,” “He gave us birth.”
Also, concentrating on v18, God’s act of giving us birth:
1. Finds its motivation in God himself: to fulfill his purpose. It is God’s initiative from start to finish.
2. Is accomplished “by the word of truth.” That’s the way God does it. There’s a centrality to the “word of truth.” That could be why doing the word is so important to James, but that’s for another sermon soon.
3. And this strikes me initially as really key…the purpose of giving us birth is “so that we would become a kind of first fruits or his creatures.” This seems to suggest that at the same time as our salvation is a big deal, we ourselves are part of a much bigger salvation project. We’re an important piece of that picture–a very important piece, but the big picture is not ultimately us.
That’s all for now. Thoughts anyone?