The Pathway to Spiritual Maturity (James 1:1-18)
“Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4)
Do you feel you are lacking anything this morning? God's purpose is that we not lack anything. Instead his will is that we become his perfect or mature children, complete, lacking in nothing for an eternity of service. And this short life of ours is the preparation.
This morning we are going to begin exploring the pathway to spiritual maturity. Over the next few weeks, for a map we are going to be using the letter of James. (Give brief context for the book of James)
As we examine these opening verses of the letter of James, I want us consider the question, "How do I find and follow the pathway to spiritual maturity?" There is an outline of this chapter in the News Sheet, and you may like to follow it.
There are three key sections and one word describes each.
Slavery 1:1-2: Adversity 1:2-8: Perseverance 1:9-18.
1. Slavery - The Condition of Spiritual Maturity (James 1:1-2)
2. Adversity - The Catalyst to Spiritual Maturity (James 1:2-8)
3. Perseverance - The Evidence of Spiritual Maturity (James 1:9-18)
1. Slavery - The Condition of Spiritual Maturity (James 1:1-2)
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” (James 1:1-2)
In these first two verses we can note three of the conditions of spiritual maturity:
1.1 If we would become spiritually mature we must begin by placing our faith in Christ as Saviour and Lord
Notice the way James begins this letter. "James a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ." He assumes a very wonderful relationship of dependence and trust. No one can grow into spiritual maturity who has not first been born into God's family. There must be birth before there is growth. Let me ask you as we begin. How do you see Jesus? A good man? A wise teacher? The son of God? Do you see Jesus as the Lord Jesus Christ? For each word James uses is significant. Lord = because He is God, eternally begotten not made, of one being with the Father. Jesus = because he is a real human being born into our world to be one of us. Christ = because he is the Messiah, the saviour who came to die in our place on the cross, and take upon Himself the punishment that we deserve, so that by His wounds we are healed, by His death we are forgiven, by His resurrection we are born again into a new and living hope of eternal life. He is the Lord Jesus Christ, and we must receive Him if we are to enter God's family and become spiritually mature.
1.2 If we would become spiritually mature we must recognise our family relationships and responsibilities.
James addressed his letter to "my brothers". Not only was James himself a child of God, but he wrote to other children of God, all over the known world, "scattered among the nations" who were therefore his brothers and sisters in God's family. That is why James speaks so strongly in verses 9-11 about how important it is that we show one another equal respect no matter what our social standing. There is no such thing as an orphan Christian, or the lone ranger who attends church services but isn't interested in building deep and meaningful relationships with their brothers and sisters in Christ. Nor is there a privileged place for those who by the worlds standards are wealthy or influential. So when we use the word "family" at Christ Church, we mean the extended family of the church made up of all, young and old, single, married and widowed, which is part of the world-wide family of God. To become spiritually mature we must recognise our family relationships and take the initiative to know and love our brothers and sisters in Christ. That is why it is wrong to distinguish church activities as either spiritual and social, or to prefer the one over against the other. When ever we meet as a church family it is both a spiritual and social occasion for we meet in the presence of our heavenly Father, and the presence of His family whom he loves. To do the one should excite us as much as the other.
I heard recently of an elderly lady who took a plane journey. For three solid hours she told the man sitting in the next seat about her wonderful granchildren. She even produced a plastic fold out photo album tracing their every move from birth. She had pictures they had drawn for her at school, locks of their hair she kept safe in her wallet. After talking for three hours about her grandchildren, she finally realised that she had dominated the whole conversation. "Oh, I'm so sorry", she said, "I've done all the talking...I know you must have something to say. Please tell me....what do you think about my grandchildren?"Are you as excited about the Lord Jesus Christ and the Family He has given you? We must never want to have fewer brothers and sisters than our heavenly Father has sons and daughters. So if we would become spiritually mature we must begin by placing our faith in Christ as Lord and saviour. Secondly we must recognise our place in the family of God, and share the family responsibilities.
1.3 If we would become spiritually mature we must recognise that our role is that of a slave, serving God in His world.
With the exception of Jude, James is the only NT writer to introduce himself in this way without qualification. The writer could have said "James, the brother of the Lord Jesus" or "James, Bishop of Jerusalem......" Think of the opportunities for name dropping at clergy cocktail parties, you can imagine the conversation... "That man over there, who is he? Don't you know? Oh, he's the Lords brother, we made him archbishop of Jerusalem, well we had to didn't we...." That's not the status James accepted. It was as if he is saying, “There are only two things you need to know about me. My name is James and I am a slave of Jesus Christ.” Having emphasised the deity of Jesus Christ, James chose to introduce himself as a slave.
A slave. Do you think of yourself as a slave? Most years in June I attend the Evangelical Ministers Assembly. Its held at St Helen's Bishopsgate in the City of London. The helpers who serve the coffee and run the conference wear poloshirts with the words "St Helen's Slave" across the front. That is kind of like what James blazes across the top of his letter. He describes himself by the only title he considers worth using. This was his only claim to fame. Content to be known as the slave of Christ.
What does it mean to be a slave of Christ? At least three things.
Slavery means total Obedience. A slave knows no law but the masters word. The slave has no rights of his own. He is the absolute possession of his master. He is bound in a relationship of unquestioning obedience. Total obedience.
Slavery means absolute Humility. To voluntarily describe himself as a slave is the mark of a person who thinks not of his privileges but his duties, not of his rights but his obligations. There is nothing lower in the social scale than a slave. A slave of Christ is a person who has lost himself in the service of God, and no longer cares what any one else may think of him. Total obedience, absolute humility.
Slavery means unquestioning Loyalty. To see oneself as a slave of Christ is to describe a life totally dedicated to God. What we do, we do for the Lord. Our own preferences, our own desires, our own profit should not enter our calculations. Total obedience, absolute humility, unquestioning loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ - what a privilege! Here we have the brother of our Lord, the leader of the Church in Jerusalem calling himself a slave. We may be children of God by adoption and yet the only greatness to which we can ever inspire is, like James, the greatness of being known as a slave of Jesus Christ. There is no contradiction between sonship and slavery. For to be a slave of God is to experience perfect freedom. If we would become spiritually mature we must begin by placing our faith in Christ as Saviour and Lord, we must recognise our family relationships and responsibilities, and we must serve God in His world willingly and joyfully as His slaves. Slavery - the condition of spiritual maturity.
2. Adversity - the Catalyst to Spiritual Maturity (James 1:2-8)
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)
We will never understand this principle humanly which is why James says we must pray for wisdom to see the world from God's perspective.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5)
Pray for wisdom and you will see that everything, I mean everything, that ever happens to you has meaning and purpose in the will of God. As Paul says in Romans 8:28-29
"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son...." (Romans 8:28-29)
Adversity is God's catalyst, his springboard, the means by which we become like Christ. With that in mind, James tells us to realise:
2.1 We must not only expect adversity but welcome it
This does not mean we should seek out trials but instead rejoice when they come, because God has a purpose behind them.
2.2 We must accept that adversity will often come suddenly.
The word for "face trials" has with it the notion of falling into, or of turning a corner and coming face to face with someone. You cannot always be prepared for it.
2.3 We must appreciate that adversity will be varied in kind.
There are "trials of many kinds". They may be physical, they may touch our emotions, they may involve our family or possessions. Anything and everything can and is a tool in the hands of God.
2.4 We must realise that adversity has a purpose.
We must not lose heart and think it is a sign that God no longer loves us, or that he is punishing us. Discipline may be part of his purposes, but we rest in the hands of a skillful surgeon who fashions our souls according to his perfect will. We live by faith not by sight
2.5 We understand that adversity will last a life time.
Verse 4 could be translated "Let the process go on until the work is complete." If you are looking for a quick fix or transporter that will beam you up to the seventh heaven or fourth dimension without pain then forget it. You are not only wasting your time but actually delaying your spiritual progress. There are no short cuts to maturity. It is a life-long process.
This adversity may afflict us physically. The mature apostle Paul could write "who will rescue me from this body of death." We will never be free from suffering in this life.
This adversity will affect us spiritually. The elderly apostle John could write "if we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves.". We will never be free from sin.
This adversity will impact upon us intellectually. The wise apostle Peter could admit that Paul's epistles were hard to understand. We will never cease to have questions.
Never free from suffering, never free from sin, never cease to have questions. How do we follow the pathway to spiritual maturity?
Slavery - the condition of spiritual maturity
Adversity - the catalyst to spiritual maturity, and then thirdly:
3. Perseverance - The Evidence of Spiritual Maturity (James 1:9-18)
“Blessed are those who persevere under trial, because when they have stood the test, they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. …. 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.” (James 1:13-18)
When we meet trials and testings in the right way there is great blessing. That little phrase "stood the test" is rich in meaning. It was used in ancient times to describe the way a metal is cleansed and purified through great heat. In the same way weakness of character is purified through the heat of the moment.
When I left school I went to work in East London for DSS. I was 18, naive, inexperienced, immature, straight from school. I remember vividly a month after I had arrived being called to see my HEO, at the top of this government tower block, looking out over East London. "What do you think of this place?" he asked. "Oh its just like Lowestoft", I said, "only bigger...." "No, its not..." he replied, and over the next couple of years, I discovered what he meant. The pressure of dealing with the problems related to inner city poverty, unemployment, the criminal fraternity, the prostitutes, the homeless, children taken into care, felt like I was in a refiners fire.
My child-like faith was tested, and I came out of it knowing both I and they needed Jesus, because I couldn't provide for their deepest needs with Government hand-outs. What is the object of testing? Why do aircraft manufacturers invest millions on prototypes and test flights? Why do automobile manufacturers invest so much money in R&D, making concept cars that never end up in the showrooms, demolishing brand new cars full of dummies driven into brick walls? To improve them, to make them safer. That is how God uses adversities, difficulties, the trials of life, in order to lead us along the pathway to spiritual health and maturity.
So what do we look forward to then? We look forward, says James, verse 1:12, to "the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him." God promises each of us, our very own stephanos! In 1st Century Palestine the word was associated with four different things.
1. The crown of flowers were a sign of joy at a wedding.
2. The crown of jewels was a mark of royalty and authority.
3. The crown of leaves was a sign of victory at the Olympic games.
4. The crown of honour was a mark of wisdom and dignity.
Which is James describing here? All of them! The wonderful thing is we don't have to choose. The crown of life we are promised is a sign of joy that no one can take away. A sign of royalty for we are adopted children of God, a sign of victory that in Christ we have overcome the evil one, and a sign of dignity and honour for we serve as God's ambassadors. For us to receive this crown, Jesus needed first to wear the crown of thorns. It is ours to look forward to, as we follow Him along the pathway of discipleship, realising that slavery is the condition, adversity the catalyst and perseverance the evidence of spiritual maturity.
Let me close with an illustration. It seems that an old dog fell into a farmers well. After considering the situation, the farmer decided that neither the dog nor the well were worth saving. So, he decided to bury the old dog and put him out of his misery. When the farmer began shovelling, the dog was hysterical. But as the farmer kept on shovelling, and the dirt hit his back, a thought struck the old dog. Each time a shovel full of dirt hit his back, the dog would shake off the dirt and step up. So, blow after blow, the dog would shake it off and step up. No matter how painful those shovels of dirt were, the old dog fought panic, he just kept shaking it off and stepping up.
Finally, the dog, battered and exhausted stepped triumphantly over the wall of that well. What he thought would bury him actually benefited him because of the way he handled his adversity.
Perseverance is the ability to shake it off and step up when a load of trials are dumped on you. Some of us here today are feeling like you’ve been dumped on. It hurts. It is unpleasant. Sometimes we despair. Sometimes we cry. Sometimes we are angry at the burden. But we must always take heart. We must always have a deep sense of joy. Why? Because the burden is producing perseverance. Perseverance is producing maturity. Neither of these virtues so prized by God would ever be ours without the burden. Dear brother, dear sister, Count it all joy.