There is a tendency in our culture for people to define themselves and others by rigid descriptive categories such as age, social class, disability, gender identity, race, and sexual orientation. Powerful forces within our culture seek to exploit these identity labels to impute malicious motives to others, divide communities, and form exclusive political alliances. James understood this process quite well. He was the leader of a community of Jews who followed Jesus and worshiped him as God. His Jewish neighbors rejected these Christ followers as “idolaters”, and their neighbors who had embraced the gods of the Roman Empire saw them as dangerous “atheists”, who were putting everyone at risk by ignoring the traditional deities and incurring their wrath. In a world where many have labeled Christ followers as “problematic”, James shows us that knowing God accurately, allows us to know ourselves accurately, and this knowledge strengthens us as we face trials and temptations.
What labels do you use to identify yourself? What are some of the common labels you use to describe other people? Where do those labels come from?
Read James 1:16 – 18
16 So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. 18 He chose to give birth to us by giving us his true word. And we, out of all creation, became his prized possession.
In the previous verses James reminds his listeners that there is a powerful tendency to forget how sinful they can be. He wants them to remember that no matter what labels that they or other people might use to describe them, in the eyes of God they are people who struggle with trials and temptation. James challenges them to take personal responsibility for the temptations and sins that emerge from within themselves.
However, in today’s text James moves away our sinfulness, and instead draws our attention towards God’s goodness. When we are facing trials it’s easy to blame God. When times are tough it’s easy to lose sight of the good things that God has given us. James now draws our attention to the fact that: Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father (vs. 17). God is the source of all blessing, and James goes on to describe him in a number of powerful ways:
God is the sovereign One who “created all the lights in the heavens”: God made the stars and fixed them in place and guides them in their path. God is the one who reigns over every corner of his universe. And this God takes an interest in us, loves us, knows us, and gives great gifts to us.
God is the dependable One who “never changes or casts a shifting shadow”: God may have made the lights in the heavens, but he is not like them. While the lights in the sky are constantly moving, God is unchanging and constant. Unlike the many idols of the Roman Empire, our God, the God above all gods, is not fickle. God is always good to us, and his commitment to us never falters.
God is the gracious one who “chose to give birth to us”: James tells us a number of important things about this new birth:
This birth has been given to us as a gracious gift. It is not something we have earned; he “chose” to give it to us.
This new birth has come to us by “his true word”. Sin and death birthed as a result of our listening to our evil desires; this new birth has come to us as we listen to the word of God. James is speaking about the words of Jesus that are so powerful that they can make us into new people, and give us an identity that is accurate, life-giving, and eternal.
This new birth leads us become God “prized possession”. This is the New Living Translation (NLT) makes sense of the phrase “firstfruits of God’s creation”. The word “Firstfruit” was used of the first gleanings of the harvest in the Old Testament sacrificial system (Exod 23:16; Lev 23:10–11; Deut 14:23). These offerings grain represented “the first and the best” that the people had to give. The phrase was also used to describe Christ’s resurrection in the New Testament (1 Cor 15:20, 23), as well as of the first converts in an area where the gospel was preached for the first time (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:15). James is telling us here that God is at work bringing about his new creation. As a result of God’s good work, we have become his “first and best and most prized possession”.
What trials and temptations are you battling at the moment?
When times are tough, what labels do you use to describe yourself and others?
What kind of impact do these labels have on how you think and feel about yourself and others? How does the description of God in verses 17-18 motivate you to resist temptations and endure trials and endure trials? How does it reassure you when you fail?
Thank God for every good and perfect that you have seen coming down as a gift from God our.
Ask God to make you mindful of the labels you use to describing yourself and others.
Ask God to help you embrace his word more fully.
Ask God to help you embrace his choice to lead you to Jesus and make you his “first and best and most prized possession”.