James: So Close to Jesus that his Language Changed (an insight from Scot Mcknight)

In Spiritual Growth by Kurt WillemsLeave a Comment

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One of the highlights of my past couple of months was heading out to my denomination’s (BIC) bi-annual General Assembly. There were several significant moments that stand out from that gathering. However, I want to share one of them with you.

​But before I do, I wanted to let you all know about 3 new resources that you might consider.

  1. First, I’m starting a Theology Curator Coaching Cohort! This comes from conversations with friends who I already help guide when it comes to thinking through important biblical and cultural content. This cohort is a big commitment, both in time and finances. But if you are a pastor, Christian leader, seminary student (or dropout, haha!), ‘armchair’ theologian, or life-long learner, this cohort might be a great fit for you. We will walk through a theme for 6 months (the first is on Paul) in 2 hour monthly group video calls. Each participant also gets an hour session of personal ministry coaching via Skype every month. First group session is at the end of the month, so if you are interested, I encourage you to apply soon.​
  2. This second one is in development and has a free version and a paid version. The free version is called “Revealing Jesus: Reading Revelation for Study and Transformation (An Introduction).” At this time, the first lesson is done and about 5 more will be coming. In the paid version, you get all these videos plus about 40 more. It’s called “Revealing Jesus: 30 Days in Revelation (A Masterclass).” I’m designing both of these with regular folks in mind who have struggled to engage the last book of the Bible. The longer version will have 30 days of content, including guides for reading and spiritual formation exercises. It is available for “pre-order” (at a discount) for anyone who is interested.
  3. The third is something that is completely free and an extension of the emails you get from me called “Curated Passages.” It is a email devotional resource designed to be read first thing in the morning in about 2-4 mins. The emails will come to you every Tuesday and Thursday (as the content is available). I’ll be walking through Romans, passage-by-passage. Be on the lookout for the first email in this series tomorrow morning! [I’ve tested the first couple of these emails on some friends and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive :-)].

Sorry for dumping all of those things on to you at once, but I wanted to let you know what I’ve been working on!​​ By the way, the fall seasons of The Paulcast and Rapture Drill podcasts are in production and will release soon as well.

So, back to that moment from my denominational gathering back in July.

We were fortunate enough to have Scot McKnight as our keynote speaker. He did an excellent job in both his breakout session and keynote sermon. I appreciate him on several levels. His influence on my journey certainly looms large. It was great to spend time with him.

During his message, he was talking about Jesus–as you might imagine. And he discussed something that he often challenges his students to do in their Bibles.​ (He starts this at the 24 min mark in this message)

He invites them (and us) to walk through the book of James with a bit of intentionality. And this is definitely a letter that we need to approach with intention!

Before I go into specifics, if you have ever read the letter of James, you know that it is intense.

James was the biological half-brother of Jesus of Nazareth. According to the gospels, there are moments during the life of Jesus where the family had a shared sense of shame about Jesus rising infamy among their fellow Jewish people. And I get it. A sibling claiming to be Israel’s messiah and Lord could be a bit off putting. Joseph’s technicolored coat was annoying to his brothers so they sold him into slavery; sharing a home with ‘God in a bod’ might be a bit much. 😉

  • Luke’s account of Jesus as a 12 year old being a wise sage among the teachers of the Torah already sets up the challenging household dynamic.
  • Mark 3:21 tells us that Jesus’ family believed that they needed to rein Jesus in since “He’s out of his mind!.”
  • John 7.5 says that Jesus’ “brothers … didn’t believe in him” and tried to give him career advice to get him out of their hair.
  • When Jesus is in his hometown in Matthew 13 he struggles to perform as many miracles because he is discounted as the homegrown kid.

Jesus’ family didn’t know what to do with him: especially his brothers.

I’m not surprised by this. Many people didn’t know what to do with Jesus. Many folks still don’t.

But then, as we know from the Scriptures and tradition, something changes.

The clearest expression of this comes to us in Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles: “all [the disciples] were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (1.14).

Suddenly the brothers are making a positive appearance! James is in the room. His tone has changed. He no longer sees his brother as the sibling of shame, but as “the Lord Jesus Christ” to whom he has given over his allegiance as a metaphorical slave.

Jesus changes everything for James. And so when he begins his challenging letter–you know, that one that Luther didn’t want to keep in the bible because it was so radical–he calls tests or trials sources of joy. He calls for maturity and wisdom which comes from God impartially. He calls for single-minded devotion to the Lord. He calls out the wealthy and elevates the poor. The letter is layered with wisdom and rebuke rooted in the love of his Savior.

James goes from skeptical brother to devoted worshiper.

And here’s what Scot McKnight invited us to consider at our conference. He said:

“I would encourage you to do something as an assignment. And this is fun. Read the whole book of James in one sitting. And in the margin, put a tick or a dot–whatever you do. It’s okay to write in your bible. It’s alright. Do something in the margins of every paragraph if you think that sounds like a teaching of Jesus.”​​

He gave an example starting in James 1.22 where he encourages his readers to be “doers of the word and not only hearers.” It almost sounds like the sort of thing that Jesus says at the end of the sermon on the mount about the wise man and in several other teachings. And of course, this is one of many examples of passages in James that have a Jesus-ish feel to them.

Scot says that it’s possible to do this and virtually every paragraph sounds like the kind of thing Jesus would say. He added:

“Here’s the thing about James. James sounds like Jesus in every paragraph without quoting him. And you can only do this if you follow Jesus so deeply that every time you talk, you sound like him. In the Jewish world this is called wisdom. … A wise sage is someone you can go to and you can ask a question and when ask it you know the answer is worthy of doing. That’s wisdom. And James had received the teachings of Jesus as wisdom so much so that it transformed his entire language so that he sounded like Jesus on every page. I think it’s beautiful.”​

James’ life turned upside-down in such a way that everything about his identity shifted. He longed for nothing more than to serve God, the Lord Jesus, and exhort his sisters and brothers (both physical and spiritual I’d assume) to live out of the abundance of God’s wisdom and love.

James shows us that Jesus can transform our lives too. We can become so close to Jesus that our very language changes. We can become so invested in absorbing his wisdom that we decide that it is “worthy of doing.”

On every page of our lives, may we sound and look more like Jesus. This is indeed, beautiful.

Author: Kurt Willems

Kurt Willems is a pastor, author, and spiritual director. His first book, Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain, releases in March 2021. Kurt is also the host of the Theology Curator podcast. He has a master of divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a master of arts in comparative religion from the University of Washington.
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