As we continue our journey of exploring books of the Bible we may not know as well, I want to take a little different approach this week and look at the author more than the content. The book we’re looking at is the letter of James in the New Testament.
The James we are talking about was probably the brother of Jesus. I say ‘probably’ because there are four men in the New Testament that had that name. The author of James could not have been the apostle James because he died too early to have written it. The other two men with the name James were not as influential or important in the church as this author, so we make the conclusion that this letter was written by James, the brother of Jesus.
James was one of many brothers of Jesus, and he was probably the oldest since he is listed first in Matthew 13:55 “’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?’”
What’s interesting about James is that he first did not believe in Jesus and even challenged him. In John chapter 7:2-5 it says this, “But when the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near, Jesus’ brothers said to him, ‘Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.’ For even his own brothers did not believe in him.”
James and Jesus’ other brothers are basically nudging or confronting Jesus here, as most brothers do. Galilee was far less populated and not as important as Judea (where Jerusalem is). So they are basically saying, “Stop performing your ‘miracles’ here secretly and go prove yourself in the big city.” They are urging him to fail. They are hoping the curtain is pulled back and that Jesus will be revealed not to be the son of God. They don't believe in him at this point.
Later in his life, James was a very important figure in the church:
So in conclusion, James was a younger brother of Jesus. Who, along with his other siblings, did not believe in him and even challenged him at first. He also later in life became a ‘pillar’ of the church whose letter ends up in our Bible today. What’s the connection to us today?
I think the historical person of James points to a fact that we’ve talked about before, but it is probably more relevant today with the pandemic we are facing. The fact is this: that it is OK, acceptable, etc., to have questions for God. A lot of us right now are asking a lot of why questions to God. Why did this pandemic happen? Why did my sports season have to be canceled? Why did this have to happen my senior year? Those questions are OK. In fact I believe that God welcomes them. There’s nothing he’s afraid of or trying to hide.
Questioning and/or naming things we ‘lost’ because of this pandemic are not only OK, they help us process our emotions. Naming or talking about things helps us process them. It’s when we keep those questions or emotions inside, bottled up that they can lead us down dark paths.
James and Jesus’ other siblings felt strongly enough to confront Jesus. Long term it probably helped James turn into one of the leaders of the early church. The strong emotions we are feeling right now are OK and it is healthy to name them. It will help us in the long term, and it will help us grow closer to God.
Questions for discussion/contemplation:
As I continue to introduce books of the Bible that you may not be familiar with, I’m reminded each time that I also have something to learn and by no mean have these books figured out.
This week we are going to look at the book of Micah. Little is known about Micah other than what we get from his book and on passage in Jeremiah. He was from a small town call Moresheth Gath, which was in Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel). He prophesied and did his work sometime between 750 – 686 BC. That means he was around the same time as Isaiah and Hosea.
Micah has a deep sensitivity to the social ills of his day, especially as they related to small towns and villages. This is probably because he came from such a small town. He (like Amos last week) was not very politically or religiously connected. He was somewhat of a ‘normal’ person.
Micah predicts the fall of Samaria (the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel), and also foretold of the inevitable destruction of Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel). Several significant events occurred during his time.
734 – 732 BC: Assyria led a military war campaign against Syria, Philistia, and parts of Israel and Judah. Some were defeated and others (like Judah, the southern kingdom) paid tribute to the Assyrian king. However Israel (northern kingdom) did not fare as well. According to Second Kings the northern kingdom lost most of its territory, including all of Gilead and much of Galilee (the area where Jesus would eventually launch his ministry). Damascus fell in 732 BC and was annexed to the Assyrian empire.
722 – 721 BC: Samaria fell, and the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria.
701: Judah (southern kingdom) joined a revolt against Assyria and was overrun by the Assyrian army, though Jerusalem was spared.
Micah’s message goes back and forth between doom and hope. In other terms it goes back and forth between God’s ‘sternness’ and his ‘kindness’. The theme is divine judgment and deliverance. Micah lists things that God hates (idolatry, injustice, rebellion, and empty ritualism), but also things he delights in. He ends by saying that Zion will have greater glory in the future than ever before.
The word ‘Zion’ appears a lot in the Bible. It most often refers to one of three things: the hill where the most ancient areas of Jerusalem stood, the city of Jerusalem itself, or the dwelling place of God. Although Micah was more than likely referring to multiple of these options, I want to focus on the third; the dwelling place of God. In essence he is saying the dwelling place of God will have greater glory in the future than ever before.
It’s a nice, short, seven chapter book in the Old Testament. So, here come the question “why does it matter to me, what can I learn from it?”
I want to point out again that Micah’s message goes back and forth a lot between doom and hope. Doom and hope are probably things we are thinking about a lot right now. How much ‘doom’ will this pandemic cause? How long will this ‘doom’ last? Is there any hope for a cure? Is there hope for what comes after all of this?
Doom and hope often go together unfortunately. In the midst of doom we look for hope. When hopes are realized, we often think about what doom would cause the hope to go away. Right now we are all getting a lot of messages of doom. What about hope? This week I want you to push the ‘doom’ away and think about hope. You won’t find it a lot on the news, you won’t find it a lot online, but there is hope. Micah spells it out for us. He says that the dwelling place of the Lord will have greater glory in the future than ever before. Through the Holy Spirit, we are the dwelling places of God. We can be hopeful for the future. We can be someone else’s hope by the way that we treat them during this time. Doom and hope go hand and hand. I hope that through the Holy Spirit we can be places of hope amidst the doom.
Questions for discussion or contemplation:
What do you know about the book of Amos or what do you know specifically about Amos the man? My guess is not a lot.
Amos was from Tekoa, a small town in Judah about 6 miles south of Bethlehem. He was not a man of the court like Isaiah, or a member of a priestly family like Jeremiah and Ezekiel. He earned his living from a sheep flock and a sycamore-fig grove. He was a very normal person.
Amos lived during the time of the divided kingdom of Israel, after David and Solomon. Though his home was in Judah (the southern kingdom) he was sent to announce God’s judgment on the northern kingdom of Israel. He probably ministered for the most part in Bethel, which was Israel’s main religious city
The book brings his prophecies together in a carefully organized form intended to be read as a unit. If offers few, if any, clues as to the chronological order of his spoken message – he may have repeated them on many occasions to reach everyone who came to worship. According to the first verse, Amos prophesied during the reigns of Uzziah over Judah (792-740 BC) and Jeroboam II over Israel (793-753 BC). The main part of his ministry was probably carried out from 760-750 BC. Both kingdoms were enjoying great prosperity and had reached new political and military heights. In a sense, they were doing better than most. It was also a time of idolatry, extravagant indulgences in luxurious living, immorality, corruption of judicial procedures and oppression of the poor. As a consequence, God would soon bring the Assyrian empire to destroy the northern kingdom.
Israel at the time was politically secure and spiritually smug. About 40 years earlier, at the end of his ministry, Elisha had prophesied the resurgence of Israel’s power. The nation felt sure, therefore, that it was in God’s good graces. But prosperity increased Israel’s religious and moral corruption. God’s past punishments for unfaithfulness were forgotten, and his patience was at an end – which he sent Amos to announce.
Amos declared that God was going to judge his unfaithful, disobedient, covenant-breaking people. Despite the Lord’s special choice of Israel and his kindness to her during the exodus and conquest and in the days of David and Solomon, his people continually failed to honor and obey him. Places of worship were often paganized. The people thought performance of the rites was all God required, and, with that done, they could do whatever they pleased. Those who had acquired 2 splendid houses, expensive furniture and richly laden table by cheating, perverting justice and crushing the poor, would lose everything they had.
The God for whom Amos speaks is a God of more than merely Israel. He also uses one nation against another to carry our his purposes. He is a Great King who rules the whole universe. Israel must know not only that he is the Lord of her future, but also that he is Lord over all, and that he has purposes and concerns that reach far beyond her borders.
It’s easy to read Amos and think that the book has nothing to offer to us today. It was written to a specific audience for specific reasons. However I would argue that we have two valuable lessons that we can learn from Amos.
The first is that the people of Israel thought that as long as they performed their religious rights (go to church, pray, etc.) that they could then do whatever they wanted to do. Their spiritual lives were all about doing and not having a true relationship with God. That’s why they didn’t have a problem with their immoral ways or cheating the poor and preventing justice. Amos is often called the book of social justice.
I wonder how often we just check the boxes (church, pray, Christian school, etc.) and then live our lives in a completely different way. Amos says that all of these things need to add up. We can’t do it half way. It matters that we go to church, read the bible and pray. But it also matters how we treat one another and how we conduct the rest of our lives.
The second lesson I think we can learn from Amos, is Amos himself. Dr. Radcliff pointed this out in the video. That Amos was just a sycamore tree farmer. He wasn’t anyone important in religious or political circles. He was a simple man. We often look to the celebrity, professional athlete, politician, teacher, coach, pastor, etc. to deliver an important message. What of instead we were the messengers to others. Not just on faith based matters but on how to treat one another?
Amos is an example of doing what is right. I think far too often (even I need to admit it) that we look to others to do the right things when we also have the chance to do it. I think we need to look at ourselves as ‘humble vessels’ as Dr. Radcliff states. What truths can we bring to others, even if we feel unworthy of doing so?
Your social feed is going to be overly full during this time in our lives. Most people will be communicating through technology rather than face to face. What would it look like for you to be a humble vessel of truth during this difficult time?
Questions to discuss or contemplate: