James 1:12 “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”
Although we all come from different backgrounds, have different personalities, and entertain different expectations in life there is one thing true about every one of us, and that is that we are all seeking a blessed life. In the old Philadelphia Baptist Catechism the first question is this, “What is it that everyone wants out of life ?” The answer it supplies is, “Happiness.” Whatever religion or philosophy we have chosen to be our own we have done that because it has promised to make our lives happier. We measure religion pre-eminently by the criterion of truthfulness, but then also by this standard, the fulfilment of its promise to bless our lives. How is it with your life ? Some of you have rejected Christianity. Have you discovered blessedness ?
Maybe for some of you I should start at a more foundational level still, that there does exist the possibility of a life becoming a blessed life. That there can be more to life than stoical acceptance of all that takes place, or of the hedonistic philosophy of “let us eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” I can understand why some people are suspicious of the very concept of a blessed life. They have seen some friends coming under the influence of chemicals, and these bright-eyed drugged-up people declaring how wonderfully happy they are. Others have met religious people who have given them a great impression of unreality, that they are on a high committed on principle to some ersatz kind of excitement whatever the circumstance. Or some have even tried Christianity, and discovered that a new happiness did not last very long.
It is very important for us to look at one of the great New Testament definitions of blessedness, given to us here by the half-brother of our Lord Jesus Christ himself. James says, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial.” You realise that this is not a pious wish, nor is it even a description of these people. It is a verdict that James is passing on a whole group of individuals. He is making a judgment upon the quality of their lives. He is saying, “Here you find a truly happy people; a blessed people.” This is typical biblical language. The Book of Psalms opens with the description of a blessed man. The Rabbis had various definitions of blessedness. You remember how the Sermon on the Mount commences in Matthew 5 with the Lord Jesus Christ giving a series of pronouncements, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted” And so on. Judgements are made about certain people and they are deemed to be ‘blessed.’
There was an occasion when Jesus was speaking and a woman, very moved by what she was hearing, cried out, “Blessed is the woman who gave you birth and nursed you !” But Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:27 and 28). How truly happy those people alone are. There was another occasion when Jesus’ disciples had returned from a mission when they had been preaching and healing in his name. The Lord Christ spoke to them and said, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Luke 10:24). Few men had entered into the blessedness which these disciples of Jesus alone had experienced.
So there is state of blessedness which some know which is not a fake; it does not come from a bottle; it is not auto-suggestion: it is not induced by what has become known as touchy-feely religion; it does not bypass the mind and the rationality of man; it respects individuals and their own personalities and attainments. This blessedness is the result of God’s work in our lives; his grace acting redemptively and lovingly, transforming and elevating us. It comes through the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and as a result of his influence upon our lives we become a blessed people.
Some people are desperate to find happiness. Life for them has been one long search. My problem with their attitude is this, why should any man be blessed at all. My own conviction is that the human race has lost its every entitlement to God’s blessing, and so have we as individuals. Men are consumers. They think that to be happy is their right. Where can they get it ? How much will it cost ? Where may there be a better happiness ? If it is from God then they will even go for that. But all our rights for anything from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the One before whom the seraphim hide their eyes and cry “Holy ! Holy ! Holy !”, have long vanished. Observe selfish, sin-centred man. Look at this hideous century drawing to a close. See how men behave towards their wives and children. Consider them on a Saturday night in this town, and it is no different from any place in Europe. Look at the files on this century, how it has treated the Jews, how it behaves to any racial minority. Think how it kills the unborn child. How cruelly it treats animals. It is a civilisation awash with drugs and alcohol. It cannot survive without chemicals or constant entertainment. It is materialistic and pleasure loving. Marriage vows mean nothing to men. Think what happened yesterday, 15 August 1998, a date never to be forgotten in the bloody history of Northern Ireland. Omagh is a quiet market town in Ulster. A car bomb was exploded on a Saturday afternoon, while shoppers were wandering around. Loyalists and Republicans milling together in their families. Teenagers sauntering about in groups. Then “Boom !” and hundreds injured and almost thirty killed; many lives never the same again. It is man that can do something like that. Not monsters with horns, but people who would go home that night to families and watch “Match of the Day.” Man the sinner has forfeited any rights before Almighty God. We have no entitlement to happiness. The Lord Almighty is not a God who comes running at our beck and call to give us little joys. The problem then is where may sinful people who deserve nothing find true blessedness ?
James helps us by describing for us a blessed person. How fascinating his definition. It is not what we would expect. It is not a description of high feelings but of a persistent direction in life. The blessed man is the one who perseveres under trial, says James. He is not the man who is a stranger to trial. Many think like this – “there is blessedness, and there is trial. The one drives out the other. You have to plan your life avoiding as many trials as you can because if a trial comes into your life you can’t cope. It will be goodbye happiness.” The problem is that this life is beset by trials for us all. The creation is groaning with the burdens it bears. Mortality is written across all our lives. The news media brings its chronicles of daily pain into every home. Who knows what the next ringing telephone is going to tell us ? Who can escape trials ? Blessedness comes not in avoiding them but in your response to them – that is James’s message. What is he pointing out to us ?
1] OUR TROUBLES ARE TRIALS
Firstly, we are to see our troubles as trials, that is, we are being tried and tested by our difficulties. Here is a man, and the Lord Jehovah is his God. He is then a blessed man. The Old Testament says, “Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord.” But into his life comes one trial after another. God is subjecting his faith to various pressures. This Christian believes in the over-ruling providence of God. He is one who works all things for our good. He loves and cares for us. When we cast our burden upon him he sustains us. He will supply all our needs gloriously. That is this man’s faith. Yet there are times when God will place us as Christians in situations where that is so difficult to believe. “Is this God’s attitude to me ? Is this the way God regards me ? Does he know what is going on in the church ?” we ask. We have these great Christian teachings of the shepherding love and sovereign protection of the Lord, and we act upon it, and yet we find there are days and experiences when our own providence seems to speak something very different. God is trying us, placing us in circumstances where it is hard to keep trusting God. Discipleship is costly, and God’s own love is obscured and almost contradicted by what he does.
Remember the trials that come into the life of Joseph. He is an fine young believer, gifted and intelligent, with a certain attractive naivet=E9. He is a favourite of his father’s and that causes resentment, and when he downloads his dreams onto his brothers that deepens their dislike of him. They think of killing him, and then see an opportunity to sell him into slavery. He is taken far from his home and native land. He becomes a slave in Egypt, where his mistress tries to seduce him. Through resisting her he incurs years of imprisonment in an Egyptian jail. There he is let down by a man he helps, until finally he is summoned to Pharaoh’s palace to interpret a dream of seven fat and seven thin cattle. By the time this blessed man Joseph – whose God is the Lord remember – has reached the age of thirty he has known about thirteen years of loneliness, slavery and prison life. God has been testing him.
The Lord Jesus Christ once warned his disciples that they were to especially watch and pray because of immanent trials (Mark 14:38). Have we ever thought of that as a possibility ? That we are facing a time of trial, not in the distant future, but in these days ahead. God is going to put us in his crucible and our faith going to be tested. “Watch and pray” because there are going to be troubles in your family. “Watch and pray” because there are going to be difficulties in work. “Watch and pray” because your health is going to be particularly uncertain. Trials are ahead of us, and they are there by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. They came into Joseph’s life and they have come into the life of every single Christian. There is no way that we can avoid them.
The tests will indicate whether our religion is real or not. Peter writes to first century Christians living at a time of apostolic pastors possessing grace to perform apostolic signs. What would they have to grumble about ? Yet he says to them, “Now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine” (I Peter 1:6 and 7). “You may have had to suffer grief.” “You may have had to.” That necessity flows from the decrees of God for these believers. They have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials for this reason, that their faith be proved genuine.
Every parent who is not interested in religion is going to be sceptical about their teenage children suddenly going to church because it is an unproved faith. They have seen other temporary enthusiasms in their lives before, and sadly in many young people their family’s scepticism is proved to be well founded. Tests come along which explore their immaturity, for example, when they meet attractive members of the opposite sex who lack any interest in religion at all. That can prove to be a very searching test of how important Christianity is to the young churchgoer. A general is happier with a regiment of experienced, battle-scarred veterans coming to relieve his weary troops at the front than one composed of enthusiastic students who have never been under enemy fire. They need such trials for their own sake more than for the help they can give to others. So the first thing James says is that the blessed man is one who is not a stranger to trials.
2] WE PERSEVERE THROUGH OUR TRIALS
The next thing we see in this definition of the blessed man is that he perseveres under trials. “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial.” Trials by themselves may harden us, make us cynical, or despairing, or suicidal. The mere fact that we are all confronted by trials is no guarantee of good coming from them. Think of King Saul. Think of Judas. Think of all the people we know whose ill health, and broken hearts, and broken relationships, and failed businesses, and abusive parents, and distant children, and experiences of pain have left them meaner and more distant people. Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, says James. He goes through it. He perseveres. He keeps following the Lord wherever the Lamb leads. He keeps believing, and trusting, and obeying, and worshipping, and loving Christ, and the church, and the Word. All through the stress and strain of the various experiences he keeps going.
The moment we find ourselves under testing the first thing we say to ourselves is, “the great danger now is that I’ll stop. I will ground to a halt, and fall into despair.” We are aware of the great danger of inertia, our Christian life stagnating and our faith becoming stifled. Our marriage or our job or our health is under attack and our whole motivation for going on in the Christian life is being tested. Think of those saints in the Old Testament. Elijah is lying under a juniper tree. He has forgotten the most recent blessings he has experienced. What about his present obligations ? Elijah has flung himself under a shady tree, and he is in despair. It is a picture of a man utterly failing to persevere in trials.
There is nothing more common than trials, and that during them Christians opt out of exposure to service and the vulnerability of being helped and of helping others. They detach themselves from Christian work and find a distant spot in the shade and give up. Their affection is no longer set on things above. They stop finding out where the hurt is in the congregation. They have virtually taken early retirement. They say to themselves, “A man in my position can’t be expected to witness, or attend the means of grace, or pray, or worship, or think of his neighbours. Everyone will excuse a man going through a trial like this doing nothing.”
I do not want to depreciate that mentality. I am aware of speaking of people under tremendous stress. Such people can only survive by hanging on by their finger tips, and that requires extraordinary effort. Yet that is what James is pointing to here. “Be a Christian survivor,” he is saying. “What good will it be for anyone if you give up ?” The blessed man endures. In the valley of the shadow of death he keeps on walking. You can still hear the Lord’s voice, and the sound of his footsteps. Let’s keep moving, moving on, going on and on, walking through this grim land. It is terribly easy to stop. You can readily find a hundred reasons to justify you opting out. Many others can be blamed, and you can put down yourself with consummate skill – “I’m a failure. I’ve done nothing with my life. Nobody appreciates me. I don’t fit in.” Soon all Christian motivation has gone.
James is saying to us, “Please don’t do that.” Endure ! Keep going through this dark patch, a pilgrim through this barren land. The sun is beating down and the vultures are gathering. Keep going. Move on, and move quickly. Remember the sublime teaching of Jesus Christ. Remember his dying love. Remember those who look to you. Keep going. Keep things going. Do the next thing. There are times in a battle when the army is going through a difficult time. There have been considerable setbacks. The troops have to retreat. It is then essential for the soldiers to keep looking after the little details of any fighting force. There are the weapons, the discipline, the order, the obedience to those in authority, the polishing, the reveille and so on. The men have to persevere. If they become a rabble then the war is lost. They have to regroup and take stock and rebuild. The structures must be maintained. The men have to endure hardness.
So it is in the blessed life. There are the disciplines of godliness: the daily Bible reading and prayers; the private means of grace and the public means of grace in the stated services of the church. There are little elementary duties. Let’s attend to them. Let’s never say that “in my position you don’t expect me to remember the rule book, and salute the sergeant, and polish the brasses, and oil the rifles.” You don’t have to be smart to find ready excuses for not attending to such things. But we are told, “Keep going ! Keep going ! Keep going !”
Perhaps no one in the congregation needs this message. Praise the Lord ! But there have been days when you needed it. There will be days when you will need it. You have to endure. Maybe all the people who truly need this message are absent. But I doubt it. For all of us we meet periods when it is appallingly difficult to keep going, and very easy to give up. Suddenly every prop that holds us up can be knocked away from under us. Then we have to keep standing. It is an evil day and having done all we have to stand. The blessed man is the one who endures. He holds fast his confession. He keeps going and doesn’t give up.
3] THE BLESSED PERSON STANDS THE TEST
So James says that the blessed man is tested, and that he perseveres, and then this, that he has stood the test. The test ends, and he has come through it. No test lasts for ever. When something is tested and approved that test ends. There was an encounter with the Lord in which the apostle Peter was asked three times if he loved Jesus. Three times he had denied him. Three times he was tested concerning his love for Christ. Then that particular test of Peter’s love ended. The Lord never continued to weary Peter day after day saying to him, “Do you love me ?” There were to be other different tests. Peter’s faith was tried in new circumstances. For example, how would he respond when a man who had become a Christian after him would yet withstand him and point out publicly to him that something he was doing was dreadfully wrong ? Would Peter have the grace of humility to acknowledge his foolishness and error ? Peter clearly did so, and stood up to that test too.
Blessed people can face trials with the hope that they will stand the test. There is a basic familiar verse which young Christians wisely learn. It is 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” There are three truths about trials in these words.
1] No trial is unique. No one may think that this particular trial has never been experienced by any other person before today. The apostle denies it. Others, even our Saviour himself who was tried as we are at all points, have gone through the same trials and stood the test. there is hope for every one of us and all excuse-making is gone.
2] We may not attribute the fact that others stand up to a test to their personal spirituality and personal gifts which we lack. We may not excuse our failures by the fact that we are different from them. God will not allow any of us – with our own unique characters – to be tested above what we are able to bear. That would be to deny God’s faithfulness to his children. He put Latimer and Ridley in the flames knowing that they would stand the test, but not you, because he knows you would not. The tests which he has brought into your life have been divinely measured by a God who knows and loves you. So they cannot be above your capacity to bear. God is faithful to take you through them. You can stand the test.
3] God will, in his time and way, provide a way out, in order that you may stand up under it. People can endure many things successfully when they know that they will not last forever. There is one certainty, that the devil will attempt to create despair in our lives when we are passing through trials. “There is no way out of this,” he says to you. “This will go on and on and on. It is a dark tunnel with no end.” But the apostle says here not only that there is a way out, but that God will provide it. He will open a door, and no one can close it. Remember the resurrection. Remember Jesus Christ risen from the dead according to our gospel. There were two people walking to Emmaus, and their lives had fallen in. Their best friend upon whom they had set all their hopes for a better life, had been taken and crucified. Now with the death of the best what hope was there for weaklings like themselves in this menacing world ? Then God acted, and brought Another into their company and conversation. He walked with them and questioned them, and then opened up the Bible to them. “What of this ?” he asked, “and this, and this,” quoting from the Old Testament promises of God and showing them what the Lord would do, and how it was predicted that the Messiah must suffer and die and rise again. And upon their darkness he shone the light of the Scriptures, and their spirits began to rise, and on that first day of the week they were born again to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It was Jesus Christ himself who had come to them, and their hearts burned within them. There is always the great reality of the resurrection and how it transforms every kind of darkness.
So the blessed man is one who is tested, who perseveres under the trial, and who stands the test. Two things in closing.
1] THE BLESSED MAN WILL RECEIVE THE CROWN OF LIFE
What is James saying ? That we have to grin and bear it ? And that is what life is all about ? That the best life is the most patient and exemplary ? Not at all. He sets our lives in the context of the living God, and in the light of eternity. This is a moral universe. Our lives have an eternal dimension. The grave is not the end. It is not that men live and then die and are buried, and that’s it. It is not that eventually the car-bomber lies in the grave alongside the child and the young mother he murdered, and that’s what it’s all about. We die, and there is nothing more. It is not like that at all. “After death the judgment.” “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” Man is made in the image and likeness of God. Consider man’s worth, his achievements, his extraordinary powers of self-sacrifice. A woman will choose to lay down her own life that a friend might live. No animal will think like that. We are conscious of great principles that are more important even than our little lives, and so we will give our life up for others. God has made us like that. And God holds us accountable for our lives.
God will reward those who persevered through trials and have withstood the test. He will give them the crown of life. Men had rubbished them. Men had called them losers When their spouses had suffered from a long incurable illness they had given up their own lives and careers and devoted themselves to serving them. They had loved them when they were the bride or groom of their youth, and they had made vows to them, and now that they were helpless they spent their strength for them. And their own family had suggested other things, but they knew their duty. God will vindicate them – that is what James is saying.
You remember how the Auca Indians of Ecuador speared to death five young American missionaries forty-five years ago, and then how the wife of one of them, Elisabeth Elliott, went and lived among them with her daughter and cared for them and taught them about the Lord Jesus Christ ? I heard this week how the grandson of Nate Saint – another of the five – has spent years of his life as a pastor of the Aucas. This year a party of students from a university in Washington state went on a trek to this part of Ecuador. They were guided through the jungle by Auca guides, and stayed in Auca villages, and finally they came to this pastor and whispered, “Where are these Aucas ?” They were amazed that the people guiding them and giving them hospitality were these once fierce and suspicious people. Nate Saint said to them of one old Auca man, “he has become my grand-father.” Then these Aucas innocently spoke to these young American pagans, and told them of their knowledge of God and what God had done to their hatred and fears and abuse of women and children. Elisabeth Elliot and her friends and Nate Saint’s grandson did not return to the Ecuadorian jungle like some Rambo with napalm, and bomb ‘savages’ back to the Stone Age. They went in love and forgiveness and brought the good news of the one who has conquered death and lives for ever more. And God will honour them. They have spent their years overcoming the feelings of bitterness and revenge, and God will give them the crown of life.
Not much of a life, the world may say, forgiving seventy times seven, going the second mile, turning the other cheek, giving a gentle answer that turns wrath away. Not much of a life ! A corn of wheat has been cast into the Ecuadorian jungle and it dies, and what fruit comes from it. Life comes from it in this world, and a crown of life in the world to come. There is a crown of life. After death, not non-existence, our Saviour and his joy in his p eople. What will men do for the honour of this world’s rewards ? Emperor Marcus Aurelius had a worthless spoiled son. He would look at the gladiators overcoming their opponents and gaining a crown from the emperor at the end of the games, and he envied them. One day he dressed up as a gladiator and went forward at the end to get his crown too. What a hollow crown that was. But James is speaking of reality, of a Saviour who will one day say to many who persevered through trials and withstood their tests, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
There was a Christian congregation which met in a place called Smyrna in what is today the north of Turkey. It was tough being a Christian there and the Lord of the church speaks to them in a letter in Revelation 2. “I know your afflictions and your poverty,” he says. “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:9 & 10). “I” he says, will give “you” this crown of life. It is as intimate as that. One congregation of ordinary believers remained faithful during a test which lasted a horrendous ten days, and the head of the church had noticed. He will give them a crown of life. The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glories which shall be revealed to us.
You will remember how the execution squad thought they would have some fun with the Lord Jesus. They covered his shoulders in a purple robe, and they put a reed in his and as if it were a sceptre and they plaited a crown of thorns and placed it on his head, and then they bowed before him and cried Hail King of the Jews. Then they got up and began to hit him in the head repeatedly – so that he did not get any big ideas about himself. Our Saviour said nothing. The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now. If we suffer with him, we shall reign with him. Where is the church seated now ? It is seated in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus. He is in the midst of the throne, and there one day we shall reign with him, as heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. He has made us kings and priests to God.
2. ALL WHO HAVE LOVED HIM WILL RECEIVE IT
This crown is a gift. “Be faithful unto death and I will give you a crown of life.” It is not payment. You know the difference. One is earned: the other is of grace. I worked for a year for the National Coal Board as a wages clerk paying miners as they came off the shift on a Friday. They came to a little hut and they gave their slip to us and we gave them their wage packet. Not one of them touched his helmet and said, “Ooh, thank you.” because he was merely picking up his little wages for hours spent working in the darkness a mile underground. That silver was earned. But this crown is a gift. For us it has been a privilege to serve the Lord and keep his word through the trials of our lives, and we shall be glad to be with him for ever. But he is a loving Lord and full of kindness. “You did it to the least of my brothers and sisters. You did it to me. I noticed and I want you to know I saw it all.”
He gives a crown of life to all who have loved him. That is the reason they kept going and kept serving and kept obeying day after day through the many different tests which came into their lives – they loved him. Why does that woman look after her husband like that year after year ? She loves him. Why did Nate Saint’s grandson spend his life with the Aucas ? Because he loves those men and women. The love we have for Jesus Christ constrains us to trust him and serve him. There is nothing else left for us to do. Our family have been taken from us and we feel very much alone. There must be something for me to do or God would have taken me too. Yes, love the Son of God. This is the chief commandment. This is the goal of eternity. This is our chief end. Love the Son of God. That will lift every burden and sweeten every care. That will prepare us for the crown of life which he will give to all who have loved him.
He has promised it. Do you see that ? I have spoken about it, We have tried to imagine it. But Jesus Christ has promised it. “Hath he said, and shall he not do it ? Hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good ?” Imagine that we need anything more from him than his word. But he stoops down and he says to us – “I promise you a crown of life.”
Isn’t this a blessed man, to have Christ’s exceeding great and precious promises sweetening this life, enabling him to bear every burden and endure every trial, and in the life to come to have his welcome and his crown ?
GEOFF THOMAS 16/8/98