In this series we have seen that one of the keys to understanding James is to watch Paul. Paul is the canary in the mine. He needs to breathe pure grace or he’ll explode. When Peter distances himself from the Gentiles in Antioch, Paul smells mixture and reacts angrily. But when James says “shave your head,” Paul goes along with it. These are significant events that reveal as much about the heart of James as his own words do in Acts 15 and Acts 21.
But there is an even larger factor that will affect how you interpret James, and that is your own preconceived ideas about grace and law.
How do you read James?
If you see things primarily in terms of right or wrong, you will see law in all James does. This is because a legalistic mind-set is preoccupied with doing the right thing and demanding right of others. You will read Acts 15 and ask, must the Gentiles do the three things that James requires? You will read Acts 21 and ask, was James right or wrong for suggesting the purification rite to Paul? You will see the law but miss the lives that James was trying to save.
A legalistic mindset feeds on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Someone with this mindset will put principles ahead of people. It doesn’t matter that others, such as the legalistic Jews of Jerusalem, are going to hell; it only matters that they are seen to be doing the right thing.
We are not to eat from that tree but the Tree of Life who is Christ. The question for us who are under grace is, what will bring life to these people? What will it take to turn a sinner from the error of his ways and save him from death? The issue is not right versus wrong, but life versus death. Consequently, someone with a grace mindset doesn’t hesitate to heal on the Sabbath. A grace mindset will even send a free man to the temple with an offering and a shaved head. To paraphrase Paul, “if acting like a slave is what it takes to turn slaves into free men, I’ll do it!” (1 Co 9:19).
In a world of sin and death, how do we recognize someone living under grace? They are willing to become all things to all people so that by all possible means some might be saved.
Jesus went into the houses of sinners; Peter went to Cornelius; Philip went to Samaria; Paul went to Antioch and countless synagogues; James presumably went to the temple. When Paul visited James, he went to the temple too. What’s the common thread? They all went to places where the kingdom of God had not fully come. They went there because if you want to win the lost you have to go to where the lost are.
A grace tag-team
Paul and James were men whose lives had been transformed by an encounter with Grace Himself. Paul spent the rest of his days preaching to those without the law, while James spent his in the most legalistic city on earth. When it came to reaching Jews for Jesus they were of the same mind: acting like one under the law is the best way to reach others living under the law (1 Co 9:20). Who are we to second-guess them? If you want to reach out to Jews, you’re going to have to visit the synagogue.
Wisdom is proved right by her actions. As a result of James’s strategy in Acts 21, Paul got to testify about Jesus in Jerusalem and Rome (Acts 23:11). He got to speak before ordinary people as well as kings and governors. It was like Jesus was giving Jerusalem one more chance to repent. After the uproar that Paul caused, no Jerusalem Jew could claim that they hadn’t heard the gospel of grace. Even the religious elites in the Sanhedrin were given the opportunity to repent. Sadly it seems that only a few of them did.
James’ message of grace
Critics claim that James didn’t say much about grace. Maybe, but just look at the man’s heart! He could’ve flaunted his freedom in Christ taunting the Jews for their faith in an obsolete covenant. He could’ve had spent his days shooting sacred cows. Instead, he showed great sensitivity in dealing with those in his city. His actions speak louder than words and they declare “grace for the Jews!”
Do you appreciate the challenge that James was facing? Years ago I tried to talk to an orthodox Jew in Jerusalem, but he flinched, rejecting me as an uncircumcised Gentile. He wouldn’t say a word to me. Then, as now, religious Jews are fiercely proud of their heritage. They are proud of Moses and confident of their religious performance. They believe God will accept them because they are Abraham’s children, even as they reject Jesus (Jn 8:39-42). To such people James preaches a simple message:
“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (Jas 4:6)
Ultimately this message cost James his life. In AD62 James was condemned by the Sanhedrin for breaking the law. They took him to the top of the temple and ordered him to renounce Christ. When he didn’t they threw him off. With his dying breath he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In death, as in life, James exhibited amazing grace.
Although James wrote for a specific audience, his story is relevant for all of us. By the grace of God, James was transformed from a Christ-hater into a man who prayed for his enemies. There is nothing under the sun that can account for such a radical change. Look at James and you will see God’s fingerprints. You will find evidence of supernatural, life-changing grace.
Here are the links to all the posts in this series on James the apostle:
- James: The misunderstood apostle
- Did James understand grace? 6 reasons to say yes!
- Acts 15: Grace defeats law in Jerusalem
- Acts 21:17-26