Hearing and Seeing the Word of God
Passage: James 5:11–11
Hearing and Seeing the Word of God
It has been said many times that the Scriptures are like a window into which see with the eyes of faith. As the apostle Paul says, we look “Not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.” That is, things that are not from this world. And, the Word of God, the Bible, is the window through which we have access to these things that are unseen.
It is to this eternal reality that James points us to in our text this morning. Though separated in time, we share much with the churches to whom James is writing. As Christians, we are a people who share in the death and sufferings of Christ and yet are hopeful as we look forward to the day of his return. And in between, James is trying to help us see the unseen so that our hearts may be grounded in unshakable faith.
As many of you know, it has been our practice to reserve the last sermon of the year to the theme of the Word of God. My purpose this morning is to encourage us to be a church that treasures the Bible in the year 2020. That is, I pray that God may take his Word this morning and apply it to us in such a way, that in the coming year we may continue to give ourselves with renewed zeal and expectation to the Word of God, and so be driven by it in our worship and life together.
Now, there are two ways to go about this exhortation. The first is to describe the Bible to you and show you how amazing it is. We could talk about its ancient history, its literary genius, or its influence in the world. If we continue with our analogy, it would be like asking you to admire a window by telling you everything about its make and how superior it is to other models. Now, to be sure, there is much about the history and literary features of the Bible to compel us to want to read it. The problem is that these reasons are not enough because the don’t require faith. You don’t need faith to admire the Bible or to understand its importance to history and culture.
There is, however, another way of exhortation. Picking up the analogy again, rather than describing the window to you, I want us to open the curtains, so to speak, so that we can see through the window and discover the glory that it reveals. Ultimately, it is not what we think about the Bible that will compel us to treasure it, but what we see in the Bible, as we believe God’s words by faith. It is the difference between hanging your coat in the wardrobe and entering the wardrobe with Lucy to discover a whole new world.
And that is what James is doing here in verse 11. He is helping us to look through the window. He is exhorting us to look into the Scriptures to behold things unseen.
As you heard in our reading, James references the Scriptures twice in this passage, he mentions the prophets in v.10 and the book of Job in v.11. It is implied that the readers of James are well-acquainted with the Scriptures as they would regularly gather together to hear them read and explained.
Now, notice what James does here in v.11, he says that in the hearing of God’s Word, these believers saw something. Notice the two verbs in the second sentence, “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord.” The hearing of the Word gave way to seeing. The curtains were opened.
Whether we read the Scriptures on our own or gather with God’s people to hear them read and explained, the pages of the Bible are a window into which we look to see the glorious realities of God and of his Kingdom. We don’t read the Bible simply to satisfy our religious inclinations. No, we read the Bible to see the unseen.
And James 5:11 encourages us this morning with three things to look for as we read and hear the Bible in the coming year: 1) The Grace of God, 2) The Purpose of God, and 3) The Character of God. Three things that I pray will compel us to give ourselves to the Word of God in the year 2020.
The Grace of God.
The first thing to look for as we look into the Scriptures is the Grace of God.
In order to encourage his readers in the faith, James points them back to the Scriptures. He reminds them in particular of the story of Job and his enduring faith in the face of unbelievable hardship. If you remember in the book of Job, Satan is given limited permission to attack Job. He destroys all his property, kills all his children, and afflicts him with a crippling disease. To make matters worse, Job has three friends and a spouse that are not very encouraging to him in his suffering. His friends accuse him of wrongdoing and his wife counsels him to curse God and die.
Job’s response, however, is wise and commendable. First, he praises God’s righteousness, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (1:21). Second, he submits to God’s providence, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive disaster? (2:10). And third, he trusts God’s future deliverance, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him…For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth.” (13:15; 19:25). Job remains steadfast in his trials, and therefore he is a biblical example of patient endurance.
But James knows his wisdom literature too well to simply make the point that we should buck up and do like Job did. Yes, we should learn from Job. But the ultimate purpose of the story is not to applaud Job’s staunch steadfastness but to extol the gracious steadfastness of God in keeping Job. That’s the point James makes here in v. 11, you have heard the steadfastness of Job, and what did you see? That God is compassionate and merciful.
Even in its examples of godliness and wisdom, the Bible is realistic about the human condition. Job is not a perfect example of steadfastness. His mouth speaks better than his actions. That is why at the end of the story God shows up with penetrating majesty and rebukes Job. Job responds by saying, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” This is it. Job has uttered his final words and stands guilty before God. At the end then, there is not much to commend about this man.
But is God done with him? He is not. God graciously hears Job’s confession and instead of raining judgment upon him, he graciously restores everything that had been taken away from him. The steadfastness of Job does not point us to Job himself but to God, to the Lord of grace who as Isaiah says, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3). When Job’s faith failed him it was God in his grace that held him fast, not the other way around.
And perhaps, you can identify with Job this morning, knowing that you don’t deserve a second chance and that you are not worthy to receive God’s grace. And the truth is, I am there with you also. In fact, everyone in this room who understands the gospel is there with you as well. We are all unworthy sinners. Apart from God’s grace, we all stand before God as those who deserve judgment and eternal wrath in hell. “But God, being rich in mercy because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:4). This is the good news of the gospel, that God has shown grace to sinners like Job, and to sinners like you and me.
We too, like Job, had heard of God with the ear. But now, in the gospel we have seen with our very eyes the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. You cannot separate the grace of God from the person and work of Jesus. Jesus is the grace of God manifested in flesh and bone. “The grace of God has appeared, [Paul says] bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11).
But where do we see the grace of God manifested to us in Christ? The answer is, in the Scriptures. “The life was made manifest, [the apostle John says] and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” We see the grace of God revealed as we look to the apostolic gospel concerning Christ in the Scriptures.
You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you did not see the greatness of a man, but the grace of God. That is then the first thing we look for as we read the Bible, we look to see the grace of God saving and keeping his people through Jesus Christ.
The Purpose of God
The second thing we look for as we read and hear the Scriptures is The Purpose of God. James says, you have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord.
As we saw earlier, instead of condemning Job, the Lord graciously restored to him what he had lost. In other words, God had a gracious purpose in giving Satan limited permission to test Job.
Now, the point is not that God’s grace always restores what is lost. Beloved, God does not promise his people that he will make all things new now. He does promise, however, that he will accomplish salvation for his people, and indeed he has. He has redeemed his people through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. But this redemption will be fully realized in the age to come when the whole creation is restored under the Lordship of Christ. In the “between” times, however, we continue to groan, Paul says, until we obtain “the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
It would be uncaring at best and heartless at worst, to tell someone that if they can muster enough faith like Job, that God will take their suffering away and give them back double what they lost. James knows this, so when he points these suffering Christians back to God’s purpose in Job’s suffering, he is not telling them that if they have enough patience and faith, that God will remove their trials. No, the theology of James sees trials as the means of God’s grace. The purpose of suffering, in other words, is to strengthen faith in the grace of God.
This is not an easy truth, as if understanding this will make your grief go away all of a sudden. But it is a glorious reality nonetheless, that everything in this world, including your suffering, is a tool in the hands of a gracious, powerful, and sovereign God to produce in you that which will last for eternity. Namely, faith to behold the glory of God. That is why Paul is able to say in 2 Corinthians 4 that the troubles of this world are a “light momentary affliction… preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” The purpose of God in suffering is to prepare you for eternity. The testing of your faith now is working your glorification in eternity. “The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.”
2019 was a hard testing year for our church as many of our members endured trials of many kinds. And yet, we have seen the purpose of the Lord. Have we not? We have seen faith being strengthened. We have seen gospel hope sprout from the ashes of grief and blossom into innumerable acts of love among Christ’s body.
Now, as we look forward to a new year, we can be expectant to see God’s blessing and grace at work in our lives and in our church. We can expect to receive much from the Lord that will fill our hearts with joy and thanksgiving. Sharing in Christ’s death and suffering does not mean that all of life is suffering and sorrow. But we must be sober-minded and consider that the coming year will also bring unknown troubles and trials that we do not yet expect.
And therefore, let us commit ourselves to be a church that treasures the Word of God so that when trials come we would be able to remain steadfast and established in the hope of the gospel. Let us remind one another of the purpose of the Lord that we have seen revealed in his Word. Let us hold up the lamp of God’s Word for one another in times when all we can see is darkness. And let us lend each other courage by speaking the words of God to one another in times when strength fails and fear threatens to suffocate our faith.
As you plan to take in the Word of God in the coming year, remember friend, that your Bible reading and studying and your gathering with God’s people to hear God’ Word proclaimed, is not for your own benefit only. Your study of the purposes of God revealed in the Scriptures is for the sake of others. You cannot lend the courage of faith that others need if you don’t have anything to give to encourage faith. And you cannot help others see in the darkness what you haven’t seen for yourself.
The grace of God is purposeful, and all things, including our suffering are given for our good, and ultimately for the glory of God. As we look into the Scriptures, we look to see and to understand the gracious purpose of God in everything that he does.
The Character of God
The third and final thing we look to see in the Scriptures is the character of God. “You have seen the purpose of the Lord, that he is compassionate and merciful.” James’ summary of the prophets in v.10 and of Job in v.11, is this: God is full of mercy and compassion towards his people.
Notice what James is doing here. He is interpreting Job in light of the larger narrative of the Scriptures in the Old Testament. The reference to compassion and mercy is not from the book of Job but from the book of Exodus. Exodus 34:6, “The LORD passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious [or compassionate], slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” James is reading the Scriptures through the interpretive lenses of Exodus 34. In other words, he is not reading Job in isolation but as part of the larger narrative of the whole Bible. There is a thread that starts in Exodus 34 that we see throughout the rest of the Old Testament in God’s dealings with the world, namely, the thread of God’s compassion and mercy towards his covenant people.
Now, to be sure, there are many other attributes of God that can be known and should be studied from the Scriptures. The passage in Exodus 34 goes on to highlight God’s holiness and justice when it says that Lord is also one who will not “clear the guilty.” Nevertheless, the steadfast love of God towards his people is the thread that binds the Scriptures together. James is following this thread when he concludes that the message of the book of Job is that the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
It is this same thread that we follow from Genesis, through the Law and the Prophets, all the way into the New Testament to the angel who proclaims that the virgin will conceive by the Holy Spirit a Son who will save God’s people from their sins. The thread of God’s mercy and compassion takes us to the promised Messiah, to a person, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Take the Gospels for example. As we see Christ taking on human flesh, serving the needy, healing the sick, eating with sinners, and dying on the cross to atone for sin, we see the compassion and mercy of God in full display. Beloved, Jesus is the compassion and mercy of God in flesh and bone.
The title of this sermon is more than a play in words, “Hearing and Seeing the Word of God.” In Christ, we have both heard and seen the Word of God. Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching us who God is. And in Jesus we have also seen the Word become flesh. Jesus not only speaks the words of God but he is the Word of God. He is the one who was with the Father in the beginning. More than that, he is one with the Father, and has come in time and space to reveal the Father to us. To see Christ in the Scriptures is to see the true nature and character of God. Christ “is the image of the invisible God… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Colossians 1:18-20).
The third and final thing that we look for when we read or hear the Scriptures is the character of God in covenant with his people, that the Lord is compassionate and merciful. But in order to see and understand the character of God we must see and understand the Lord Jesus Christ. You cannot know God apart from faith in Christ.
This is why God’s people have always treasured the Word of God, because it is in the hearing of God’s Word that we see the grace, the purpose, and the character of God revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ. My pastoral exhortation for us on this last Sunday of 2019 is that in the coming year we may give ourselves to be readers, hearers, doers, and lovers of the Word of God. And that as we read and hear his Word we may not look merely for the things that can be known and seen in this world, but for that which can only be seen by faith.
Brothers and sister, we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen and eternal. As we look into the Scriptures, we look as if through a window, and we behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.