We now read an ‘epistle’ (letter) written by one of Jesus’ biological brothers, James. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 13, verses 55-56, we read:
“When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour except in his own town and in his own home”. And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith”.
James is placed at the head of the brothers of Jesus, and so is probably the eldest after Jesus. Jesus had at least three sisters too, meaning that he was a member of a large family of at least eight children. His brother Jude also wrote a bible book (Jude 1:1). The ‘James’ named in the list of Jesus’ apostles during his earthly ministry is, of course, a different person altogether – a brother of John the Apostle.
During that ministry on earth, Jesus’ brother James did not believe in him (John 7:2-5). However, Jesus appeared to him after the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7) and James could hardly help but believe then! James became a ‘pillar’ of the Jerusalem church (Gal 2:9) and was the chairman of the Council of Jerusalem, which made the key decision to include the Gentiles in the one true church, without needing to obey Jewish laws.
James probably wrote this letter between AD 50 and AD 60, prior to his martyrdom in AD 62. It was written to a predominantly Jewish church, probably scattered during the persecutions that arose after Stephen’s martyrdom – hence the references to trials and temptations. James is most concerned that we have a faith that is expressed in godly deeds and not just an intellectual knowledge of doctrine.
‘Joy in the midst of adversity’ is one of his themes. When you are persecuted, or when you suffer other sufferings in life, it is a test of your faith, James teaches. You cannot control what happens to you – but you can control how you respond: persevere, stick to the tasks at hand, and do not let your sufferings undermine your faith. By persevering, you are doing a powerful work upon your own soul, maturing it, and completing it. Often, in our trials, we have reached the end of our ideas and plans and so we require God’s wisdom to continue in any direction. Therefore, we should be sure to ask for it daily and to believe that we have then received it.
As we stand firm during trials – firm in our obedience to Christ – he will reward us in the Age to Come. That means that we don’t always receive our reward now, and that we don’t understand all the reasons for all the sufferings that we go through now. Perhaps if we did, then they would not be as effective in maturing us. But remember that it is our perseverance in those trials that matters, not just the existence of the trials themselves. Paul, in Romans 5:3-5, again mentions this ‘Highway of Holiness’ that God puts us on.
But God is still in control. Like a loving Father, he delights to bless us with all good things: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created”. (1:17-18). He is both ‘Father’ by creating us, and ‘Father’ by saving us – we are twice born! Both births are of God’s choosing and we are the beneficiaries.
We have two ears and one mouth; therefore, we should be quicker to listen than the speak – some of us really do need to take this to heart (see 1:19)! Also, let’s not hide behind the “I’ve got anger management issues” excuse! James commands us, by the Spirit of God, to be slow to get angry. Presumably, then, we are in control of that aspect of our nature!
The heart of discipleship is to obey our mentor – to put the Word of Christ into practice. Too often the church is content to allow its members to ‘gorge themselves’ on intellectual carbohydrates, getting fat and flabby in the process, instead of eating the high protein of obedience to scriptural truths. It is vital to know what we believe, but it becomes fruitless if we don’t incarnate this into our actions and lives! (Excuse the mixed nutritional metaphors!)
Examples of putting doctrine into practice: keeping our tongues under control, caring for the poor and weak, and avoiding the anti-God ‘pollution’ and ‘corrosion’ of the world. Our main opponent is not the Islamist, nor the atheist, nor the heretic – it is the sin that stalks our minds and hearts.
EZEKIEL 32, 33 and 34
So, it’s back to Egypt, then! Well, it is if you have followed ‘The Big Picture’ full reading plan. We have Pharaoh and His Egypt depicted as a rampaging sea monster – a ‘leviathan’ – who now attacks all in the Nile delta. This same imagery is used to the max in Isaiah 27:1 and Ezekiel 29:3. It is much larger and more terrifying than a crocodile – more of a dinosaur or dragon, really – intent on striking terror in all who come close. But The Lord is going hunting and fishing! He will trap this ‘bully’ in his vast net and smash it on the dry ground until the breath of life has departed; as 32:7 declares. Egypt will be decimated – to the horror of the onlooking nations – and the ‘net’ is actually Babylon. The proud Egyptian army will be crushed and obliterated. And so, along with surrounding nations, the Egyptian empire will slide down into the grave.
The Lord’ s prophet was a watchman for the nation. He was its moral compass that would leave the nation with no excuses. Ezekiel had a job to do that was assigned by The Lord himself. Chapter 33 tells Ezekiel that if he reneges on this task and neglects to warn those sliding down the slippery path of sin, then they will die for their sins but also Ezekiel will be held accountable. These days, that would probably equate to Christians witnessing to the true gospel, rather than simply pointing out everyone’s faults. And furthermore, if you regard the whole nation of Judah in those days to be counted – in a covenant sense – as God’s people, then the analogy to today would be as much for us to challenge our fellow believers in Christ about their lifestyles, and also expect to be challenged back in return! See James 5:19-29; 1 John 5:16; Romans 15:14; Matthew 18:15-20.
God, in either case, takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. “Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel ?” (Ezekiel 33:11).
Later in the chapter, The Lord highlights some particular sins of Judah: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Since you eat meat with the blood still in it and look to your idols and shed blood, should you then possess the land? You rely on your sword, you do detestable things, and each of you defiles his neighbour’s wife. Should you then possess the land?’” (Ezekiel 33:25-26). This list is interestingly very close to the four specific actions that the Jerusalem apostles requested the new Gentile Christians to observe – whilst not having to live under the Law. (Acts 15:20).
Ezekiel 34 is all about shepherding the sheep of Judah/Israel. The current shepherds are a waste of space and God gives them redundancy notices! These were the priests, false prophets, and elders of the nation. The sheep (the people) have therefore gone astray and have been scattered. So, God says: “For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land.” (Ezekiel 34:11-13).
Later he is even more specific: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.  I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.  I will provide for them a land renowned for its crops, and they will no longer be victims of famine in the land or bear the scorn of the nations.  You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord”. (Ezekiel 34:23-24,29,31). A direct reference to the Messiah.