Last summer I was talking with fellow pastor Ken Simpson when he suggested that we should preach through a book concurrently in our respective churches. Simpson pastors a congregation near mine, so we discuss Scripture, ministry, and life on a regular basis. After some prayer and further discussion, we agreed to begin a series on James at the end of the summer when members are settled back in town after summer travel.
Brother Simpson and I didn’t take the exact same approach to every sermon. However, as one might expect, our encounters with the text of James yielded all of the same truths, big and small.
In this article I’ll share an overview of this collaborative effort. While this post will be similar to ones I’ve written on preaching through 2 Corinthians and the Gospel of Mark, it will also provide insight into how preachers might partner with other preachers to enrich their own preaching, and thus benefit their churches with the fruit of those partnerships.
A Word on Method
Two congregations won’t typically follow the same service schedule over the span of three or four months. Special services like Homecoming will be held, missionaries will visit, and other “planned interruptions” will occur in the preaching calendar. However, Simpson and I preached the same passages most weeks. Once or twice we differed on how we divided the texts, but mostly the divisions were identical.
We met about every three weeks to discuss James over coffee or breakfast. Then we had a weekly telephone conversation (usually Wednesday) to discuss what our initial survey of the text revealed. Finally, we utilized Google Docs. Google Docs is an online tool accessible with a free Gmail account that allows the user to type, edit, and even chat with another person who has access to the same online document. As we studied, developed outlines, or found good quotations or illustrations, we could easily share our findings.
Our sermons were ultimately our own, birthed out of personal prayer, study, and dependence on the Holy Spirit. Yet we were able to sharpen each other by sharing our best insights, by challenging each other’s sometimes unclear or off-target exegetical judgments, and by thinking through how each passage shaped our own obedience and gave direction to our unique congregations.
Outline and Structure
Many who study James closely will discover that outlining the book can be challenging (see my outlines and titles below). While faith and works is undoubtedly an overarching theme, the book of James can still seem to bounce from topic to topic. Sometimes the task of discerning how a specific topic relates back to the theme of “faith that works” is difficult. Many commentators have noted the same phenomenon. But with some effort and careful reading of how later parts of the letter harken back to earlier themes, preachers should be able to develop an outline that reflects the structure that the Holy Spirit gave this brief epistle.
When preaching through any book in collaboration with another pastor, recognize that you will likely not agree on the outline of an entire book, nor will you develop the same sermon titles. But this does not automatically mean that you both haven’t studied the passage carefully or aren’t preparing biblical sermons.
Themes and Topics
The title of my series was “How Faith Works.” I intended this phrase to have a double-meaning. In the first instance, I was suggesting that James is concerned with explaining how faith works as a matter of spiritual dynamics. What intrinsic spiritual quality does faith entail that necessarily leads to action and obedience? James deals with this mainly in chapter two.
Secondarily, I intended this title to mean that James explains how faith works itself out in very specific types of circumstances. How does a person of faith handle trials (1:2-4)? How does someone with true faith think about the future (4:13-17)? How does someone with faith pray (5:13-18)?
My main argument to my congregation was that the theme is faith at work. The various topics the book addresses flow out of that overarching theme. I not only believe this interpretation is exegetically defensible, but it also has two benefits: First, faith is a concept familiar to people of all kinds. Being able to address that word directly with a distinctly biblical framework is certainly relevant. Second, because hypocrisy is a distinctly religious problem—that is to say, it is a sin the Bible links to people of religious profession—this is a timely word for “church folks.”
As long as your church struggles with trials, temptation, pride, selfishness, worldliness, or hypocrisy, to name a few, you can never go wrong preaching James!
Many have described James as the “Proverbs of the New Testament.” This observation naturally arises for two reasons. First, both books are oriented around practical concerns. Think of how often the Proverbs speak of working hard, avoiding bad company, building wealth, etc.
Second, many phrases and verses directly or indirectly allude to Proverbs. Or, they seem to be accepted proverbial wisdom among James’s audience. Consider three examples:
James 4:6 appears to be directly citing from Proverbs 3:34:
James: “Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’.”
Proverbs: “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.”
One can make the same argument about James 4:13-14 as compared to Proverbs 27:1:
James: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.’ yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”
Proverbs: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.”
Then, in a third example, one can see where James’s proverbial wisdom appears to be adapted from other biblical passages, though the formulation seems to be his own:
“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
This verse bears real similarities to Matthew 10:22 and 1 Peter 3:14. In fact, the parallels between James and Matthew are striking, especially in relation to the Sermon on the Mount and how James refers to the Law.
Though I had read James dozens of times through the years, one insight really stood out this time: James is quite a preacher! Since we know that James was a pastor, his dealing with pastoral and practical concerns is no surprise. But if one reads closely and feels the letter carefully, they realize that James sounds more like a sermon with points rather than a letter with topics. This observation really stood out to both Simpson and me.
First, the letter is filled with imperatives and exhortations. Readers/listeners are enjoined to many kinds of obedient response to biblical truth. Second, the letter is filled with illustrations, whether from nature, biblical history, or everyday life. Finally, an urgent, serious tone characterizes much of the letter, along with moments of joy, praise, and good news.
When we consider these rhetorical features, we are given valuable insight into the heartbeat of the author. But these observations provide “homiletical helps” on how to deliver this letter to our congregations.
Challenge: Real or Perceived?
Like all biblical documents, James is not without its challenges. One unique aspect of preaching through James when we did was that it overlapped with many observances of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
Some readers know that Martin Luther had some reservations about the book of James. Though his “concerns” have been a bit overstated, as he helped translate the letter and see it distributed throughout
the land in his day, Luther’s emphasis on justification by faith seems to be contradicted by James 2:24:
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
In Luther’s theological journey, Romans was the most formative biblical book, along with Galatians. He is the reason why most Protestants hear Romans 3:28 how we do:
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (emphasis added).
James and Romans appear to give two different perspectives on justification. However, faithful exegesis helps us ask the right questions to understand these passages without immediately concluding there is a problem.
First, what do the words mean? Is Paul using “justified” the precise way that James uses that term? I don’t think he is. What about his use of “faith,” “law,” or “works”? These terms too must be carefully defined contextually.
Second, how does knowing the primary audience of each letter provide the contextual insight that might impact how we understand the meaning of these verses? Paul appears to have a different literary and theological aim that James does with his audience, and thus the framing of the argument is different, as well as the rhetorical emphasis.
I think diligent Bible students will discover that careful Bible study resolves any perceived tensions we may have.
Give some thought to the blessings of collaborative preaching. Identify a trusted friend in your neck of the woods, find a shorter book of the Bible, and prayerfully consider how the Lord might bless you as he blessed us in our study of James.
Selected Resources Consulted in the Study of James
Gerald Bray, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude (Intervarsity, 2000).
John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries (Vol 22): Hebrews, 1 Peter, 1 John, James, 2 Peter, Jude (Baker, 2005).
Paul V. Harrison, Randall House Commentary: James, 1&2 Peter, and Jude (Randall House, 1992).
Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Back Ground Commentary: New Testament (Intervarsity, 2014).
Simon Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Epistle of James and the Epistles of John (Baker, 1986).
Note: I am also aware of a commentary on James by Daniel Doriani that is thought to be very good, though I was not able to obtain a copy to use in my preparation.
Sermon Text Outlines and Titles
“Faith Under Fire” – James 1:1-12
“Overcoming Temptation” – James 1:13-18
“The Real McCoy” – James 1:19-27
“Playing Favorites” – James 2:1-13
“Real Faith Works” – James 2:14-26
“The Wisdom Test” – James 3:13-18
“The Path to Peace” – James 4:1-10
“Shifting Standards” – James 4:11-12
“The Perils of Planning” – James 4:13-17
“When Wealth Isn’t Enough” – James 5:1-6
“Prophetic Patience” – James 5:7-12
“How Prayer Works” – James 5:13-18
“The Ministry of Reconciliation” – James 5:19-20
 The cultural context of your church should never drive the exegesis of a passage. However, it will have some influence over what you do with those exegetical findings, or how they are constructed homiletically.