Meditations in James: 1 : Welcome to Servant heartedness
Jas 1:1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ
Leaders in the church of the first century seem to be so different from so many leaders in the church of the twenty first century. In big churches in the United States, leaders seem not far removed from a CEO of a big company. Some have big cars, big houses and big minders. Even in smaller churches, church leaders often seem to be ‘big people’ who command awe and respect. Now I may be wrong, but when I read some of Paul’s writings, his second letter to the Corinthians for example, although there are times when he speaks strongly, when he writes to them he spends much time appealing to them on the basis of his weakness. James starts us of in his letter referring to himself as a servant. Now this is remarkable because commentators and scholars tend to think that he was probably one of the brothers of Jesus: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?” (Mt 13:55). Now if he was a worldly person he would drop this little fact for us, just to quietly remind us of his closeness to the Messiah. I mean, a member of that special family! What tales he could have told of Jesus’ early years, probably the closest in age to Jesus, coming at the head of that list we’ve just quoted. But no, there is nothing of that. He tells us virtually nothing of himself. Even if the assumption that he was one of Jesus’ brothers is wrong, he is clearly a leader who is well known, but still he doesn’t put on airs. He simply sees himself as a servant, and that is the only designation he wants to go by.
Yet when he refers to himself as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, there is a confidence implied within that. A lot of people wouldn’t have the confidence to call themselves a servant of God; they might feel it sounds too pious, but James knows who he is and who has called him and who he serves. Some people might feel that it would be too presumptuous to call themselves that and might feel that God might hold them to account for saying such things, but James knows who he is. If he is the brother of Jesus, the designation he gives himself is all the more amazing, the servant of… the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no familiarity about this designation. He could have said, I am a servant of my brother Jesus, but he doesn’t! He elevates Jesus for he has come to see him as he truly is – the Lord. It hadn’t always been like that. Once he hadn’t even believed Jesus was who he said he was (see Jn 7:3-5). Now he understands, now he realizes Jesus is the One who has the right to call on James as his servant. There is a humility that comes out in James in this, that not only doesn’t draw attention to his pedigree, but also bows the knee both to God and to Jesus.
Servants are those who serve another and don’t draw attention to themselves. Jesus called his disciples to be servants: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:26-28) To have a servant heart was to be the starting place of a disciple, yet as they developed their relationship with him, Jesus was able to say to them, “You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (Jn 15:14,15). A servant doesn’t tend to know what is in his master’s mind, yet as Jesus shared his heart with his closest disciples he changed their designation from ‘servants’ to ‘friends’. Why, we might ask, doesn’t James call himself a friend of Jesus then, why a servant? Well the Greek word that James uses for ‘servant’ is doulos which means a bond-servant or slave, one who willingly submits themselves to their master. It is as if James says, yes, I know what our position is today, we are God’s children or friends of Jesus, and in my case he is my brother, but I want it to be known that I submit to him, he is my Lord and I don’t want to make any presumptions; I just want to be available to him, as his slave if need be.
How many of us come to God with this sort of self-imposed humility I wonder? Such humility only comes when there is a true awareness of just who Jesus is and just who we are. When we realise that he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev 19:16) and that left to ourselves we are but helpless sinners, this gives us no room to boast and no room to feel great about ourselves. It only creates gratefulness and thankfulness and a desire to bow before our liege-Lord, as the servants of old did in feudal times, acknowledging their allegiance (do you see the similarity in words?). This is what James is doing as he describes himself like this; he is declaring his allegiance to Jesus as his Lord. It is almost as if he feels that he can only come as God’s representative to His church, if he comes in this manner. He can only speak the things he is going to speak to God’s people, if he comes with his heart bowed before his Lord. What a good attitude for any leader!