James in a Nutshell

Putting together an outline for the letter from James can be a challenge. And a quick survey of commentaries leaves us with a variety of suggestions.

Scot McKnight, quoting Duane Watson offers:Saint_James_the_Just

[James] is a Jewish-Christian work influenced by Hellenistic rhetoric, but is arranged overall in the topic-to-topic fashion of Jewish wisdom texts.

Even if the structure is hard to nail down, as we read through the letter of James we can see a theme emerge. James is writing to defend the idea that a genuine faith endures through trials and is demonstrated through good works. The good works that James emphasizes as evidence of genuine faith – social justice (1:27), our speech (1:26), and avoiding worldliness (1:27) – are summarized in the first chapter. Each of these topics receive more detailed treatment later in the work.

James also warns us not to be deceived. But what is it that we may be deceived about? In the larger context, it seems that James is warning us not to be deceived about who God is (1:16, 3:17) nor about our being a genuine disciple of Christ. True disciples are doers of the Word (1:22-25) , have a faith that is shown by good works (1:27; 2:17, 20), and in the meekness of wisdom (3:13) rather than worldliness (4:4).

Perhaps the verse that captures the theme best is a mashup of James 1:2-3 and 1:12

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. … Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life

Trials are a process through which faith is tested. The testing can do one of two things. It can discover if faith that is claimed is genuine (2:26) or it can refine and strengthen the faith that is there resulting in our growth (1:4). The key word is the adjective δοκιμος, found in James 1:12 which is translated “approved” in the NASB.  The term (link) was often used to describe testing a coin to see if it was genuine or a counterfeit.

We can see the same idea in 1 Peter 1:6-7  where the testing of faith during trials is compared to gold. Here the noun (“proof”) and verb (“tested”) form of the word δοκιμος are used.

 In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ

Here is a rough outline of the letter based on this theme, or rather that highlights that this is a theme that James had in mind.

Count it joy when you encounter trials … testing of your faith produces endurance James 1:2-4
ask for wisdom in faith  James 1:5-8
contrasting the poor and rich James 1:9-11
Blessed is the person who remains steadfast under trial and is found genuine James 1:12
don’t be deceived Be blessed as doers of the Word because faith without works is useless  James 1:19-25; 2:14-26
Worthwhile, pure religion bridles the tongue  James 1:26; 3:1-12; 4:11-12; 5:9, 12
Ask for wisdom & demonstrate it through good conduct instead of being a friend of the world  James 2:1-13; 3:13-4:10, 4:13-5:6
Be patient until the coming of the Lord …  Blessed are those who remain steadfast [during trials]. Examples to consider are the prophets and Job James 5:7-11

Other commentaries observe this theme in James as well.

In the MacArthur Bible Study Guide, there is an “emphasis on spiritual fruitfulness demonstrating true faith.”

If a person’s faith is genuine, it will prove itself during times of trouble, whatever the nature or source of the trouble may be.

J.A. Motyer, in The Message of James, identifies the themes of the letter as being centered around genuine faith, which is marked by growth and ethics (page 14-16).

Make sure your growth is a true, Christian development, and remember that it is by leaping life’s hurdles that you get to the tape.

…  James might ask, Did you in fact realize that the meeting of needs is not peripheral, nor optional, but central and obligatory to your faith?

While Scot McKnight sees numerous themes in the letter of James, the central theme for him is the broad topic of ethics. Within the section on ethics, McKnight does agree with the ideas presented by other commentators regarding ethics and good works as being evidence of a genuine faith (TNICNT page 46).

If one does not perform or live out the faith, one will not find eschatological salvation (cf. 2:14, 17, 18-19).  It is unwise to reify these terms and say one must have one or another, or even to say one must have all. Instead, each of these terms bring to expression a life that is lived properly before God if one is following the Messiah


Walk according to the example you have in us (Philippians in a nutshell)

Our church has just completed preaching through the Epistle to the Philippians, so I have been reading through this letter recently. While reading through this book an interesting pattern, known as a chiasm, began to emerge in the first two chapters. A chiasm is a literary device used by the writer to draw attention to an idea or point that they want to emphasize. It relies on repeating an idea or ideas in a sequence and then reversing their order. The pattern for a simple chiasm might be drawn as


In this structure A and B represent two ideas. We can see that as one reads the reader is first introduced to the idea A, followed by the idea B. As they keep reading they are presented with the idea B again, followed by A. The idea or statement in the center of this literary device, represented here by C, is the point that the author wishes to emphasize.

In the Epistle to the Philippians the first two chapters give us a possible chiasm as follows:

A – the example of Paul in being obedient and willing to die (1:12-18)
B – the example of Paul putting others first (1:19-26)
C – the example of Christ putting others first (2:1-5)
C – the example of Christ being obedient and willing to die (2:6-11)
B – the example of Timothy putting others first (2:19-24)
A – the example of Epaphroditus being obedient and willing to die (2:25-30)

While I find this structure in the letter compelling, it would not be prudent to push this observation too far because we cannot know for certain that Paul intended to use this literary device in the letter. But as we read the letter with this structure in mind we do find that all of the examples (Paul, Christ, Timothy, and Epaphroditus) emphasize the same  two characteristics. As Christians we are to (1) put others ahead of oursPaulelves and (2) we are to be obedient and willing to die for the sake of Christ. Also in its favor is the fact that this structure draws the readers’ attention to Jesus as the primary example of these characteristics.

What is the main point that Paul wants to emphasize with this literary device? The same one that is accentuated throughout the letter.

In addition to thanking the Philippians for their gifts, Paul is urging the readers to “let [their] manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27) by avoiding apostasy and remaining faithful to Christ. We can see this through the repeated need to stand firm/hold fast throughout the letter (1:27-28; 2:16; 3:16; 4:1).  And, it is, after all, because of the gospel of Christ that both Paul (1:13) and the Philippians (1:29) are suffering which makes the need to endure “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” a pressing reality.  If this is the main point of the letter, we find the same theme is underscored by the use of the chiasm, drawing our attention to the need to remain faithful (or obedient) to the “point of death” just like Christ.

In order to encourage the readers to stand firm, Paul will call on the readers to “walk according to the example you have in us” (3:17). In tough times looking to the example of others can be helpful. Especially people we know well. And the Philippians personally know Paul who is willing to endure death to advance the gospel (1:19-26; 2:17; also Acts 16:11-40).  They also know Timothy, a proven servant in advancing the gospel (2:22). And Epaphroditus, who is one of their own, is willing to risk his life for the work of Christ (2:30).  All of these people are held up as examples to be imitated. But, the reason Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus are worthy of being copied is because they are following after Christ. The chiasm emphasizes this, highlighting our best example Christ, just as Paul wrote in another letter – “be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).

Through this literary device, Paul is able to draw his attention to Christ, encouraging the readers to remain faithful and be willing to die for the sake of Christ when confronted with persecution. He is worth suffering for (3:8) and is our primary example of how we are to act when times are tough so that we may “shine as lights in the world.”