A resurrection in our suburbRevisiting the theology of James
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Being the brother of the Messiah can’t be easy. Think about it for a minute: what would it to convince you that your brother was the Son of God? Chances are, you wouldn’t believe him unless you saw him come back from the dead. But the resurrection has a way of changing hardened skeptics into committed missionaries, and it was an encounter with the risen Christ that transformed James from being the Lord’s brother to being one of the “pillars” of his church (1 Cor 15:7; Gal 2:9).
James is the earliest book in our New Testament. It’s also one of the most misunderstood. In fact, one of the reasons many believe James was written so early is because he and Paul hadn’t had a chance to meet and harmonize their respective teachings on faith and works. Most famously, Martin Luther found James’ teaching on being “justified by works” (James 2:24) hard to swallow. Having been captivated by the doctrine of “faith alone,” Luther dismissed James as an “epistle of straw” compared to the solid foundation of Paul’s letters.
Even today James’ work is often relegated to the category of “practical Christian living”—as though James were more about good advice than good news. But nothing in James’ letter should be seen as supplemental to the gospel. On the contrary, we should see the gospel saturating every page.
For the resurrection really does change everything. For James, the resurrection changed his mind. It changed his heart. And in his letter we find his hope that it would also change his world.
A dream deferred
James’ world consisted of “the twelve tribes of the dispersion” (James 1:1)—those Jewish Christians who’d been scattered across the Mediterranean world after the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1-4). Once again, God’s people found themselves in a state of exile, subject to cultural pressures that resulted in two broad temptations.
First, many were tempted to despair. As Jews, they’d been at least tolerated. As Christians they found themselves pushed to the very fringes of society. They faced poverty. They faced exploitation at the hands of wealthy landowners (James 5:4-6). They faced legal disputes (James 2:6-7). Is this really the life that Christianity offers?
Second, many were tempted to compromise. The mercantile community of the Mediterranean world had a seductive effect. Many sought to leverage their exile into new business opportunities. But James warns that such “friendship with the world” (James 4:4) only breeds self-interest (James 4:13-17) and an insensitivity to God and neighbor (James 2:1-4).
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.
In short, the people of James’ world had become “double-minded” (James 1:8)—superficially Christian yet preoccupied with the world around them. These weren’t people who needed “practical Christian instruction;” they needed the comfort—and challenge—that God’s promises had not lost momentum. They needed a renewed understanding of who they were in relation to the world around them.
A new hope
The key verse in James, then, is found in 1:18. There, James tells his readers that Christ’s followers “should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” The word “firstfruits” appears often enough in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament it is typically used to refer to the first of something—such as a crop—that points to something even greater to come. This is how Paul uses it to describe the resurrection of Jesus as the “firstfruits” of a greater resurrection to come (1 Cor 15:23).
But the real point of interest is in the language of being God’s “creatures.” The word “creatures” comes from the Greek word ktisis. In the first century, the word was often used for the establishment of cities and for the settlement of countries. In select Jewish texts, the word referred to God’s inaugurated new age. Paul uses the same word when he refers to Christ’s followers as “new creations” (2 Cor 5:17).
James is therefore telling his readers that they “should be the firstfruits of God’s new creation.” James speaks of a day when the city of man and the city of God become one and the same, when all creation is restored and reshaped according to God’s good purpose. Miriam J. Kamell writes:
“While firstfruit language is typical of the Old Testament, here James intimates that he and his audience have become the firstfruit of creation—something new, different, and indicating a greater fullness to come. The firstfruit language is a powerful indicator of James’s revolutionary thinking, for this community to whom he writes is not simply a continuation of God’s covenantal pattern but rather indicative that God is doing something new…This birth by the word of truth…has set the audience apart as the consecrated firstfruits, signs of a greater harvest to come, birthed by and dedicated to God.”
This is the essential, culturally-subversive message of James: that God’s glorious future is foreshadowed, today, in the lives of his people. Lesslie Newbigin stresses this same point when he writes that “the Church is not to be defined by what it is, but by the End to which it moves.” It’s not simply that our attitude toward the world changes; it’s that the world itself is about to explode into renewal. God’s purpose, writes Newbigin, “is precisely the re-creation of the human race in Christ.”
The Church is the foretaste of this re-creation. Just as the resurrected body of Jesus was the “firstfruits” of a new human being (1 Cor 15:21-23), so too the “body of Christ”—the Church—is “a kind of firstfruit” of a new kind of human society.
Life as dual citizens
How, then, does this message of future renewal intersect with James’ present concern with Christian character? For James, ethical conduct is part of the new modus vivendi–the new way of life as citizens of God’s new society. Miriam Kamell goes on to observe James’ ethical commands represent “an appeal to become what they are: the firstfruits of a restored creation, set apart by the word of God to be the very images of God, set free to live according to his character and therefore triumphant over the threat of judgment.”
This helps us see more clearly that James and Paul never oppose one another. Christian character—far from being the source of life, is instead seen as an indicator of it (cf. James 2:17).
Character-building is therefore essential to culture-making. It’s not that God’s future kingdom depends on us; it’s that God intends to display the reality of his future through the character of his people. Harvie Conn writes:
“We are God’s demonstration community of the rule of Christ in the city. On a tract of earth’s land purchased with the blood of Christ, Jesus the kingdom developer has begun building new housing. As a sample of what will be, he has erected a model home of what will eventually fill the urban neighborhood. Now he invites the urban world into that model home to take a look at what will be.”
This is the essential meaning of James—that Christian ethics, social justice, and spiritual disciplines would form the collective testimony not just about what the Church is like, but about what God’s future world shall be.
Such a message subverts the temptations of compromise or despair. For what could this world offer that rivals the joys of God’s kingdom? And what present suffering can outweigh the joy of what lies ahead?
A resurrection in our suburb
In my brief years in ministry, I’ve served almost exclusively in suburban settings. Yet small-town America isn’t what it used to be. Poverty, racial division, opioid addiction—problems once associated with the inner-city have settled on small-town America and spread like cancer.
We need a resurrection in our suburb—a chance for the wild hope of the gospel to obliterate the pessimism that has kept so many so down for so long. As Tolkien writes in his classic novel, “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” When the Church functions as a missional counter-culture, the love of God reverberates down main street; it fills our homes and neighborhoods with the hope of what’s to come.
There will be a day when the City of God comes down to earth “like a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2). Until that day comes, we—just as in James’ day—need men and women to love the city of man—not for what it is but for what it will one day become. Until that day, we stand in our city square, declaring the radiance of Possibility.