Lessons from Old Testament Characters in James
Graeme Hutchinson, Moneyreagh
Editor’s Note: After his home-call to glory, and at the request of the author, this article was submitted to Precious Seed by his wife. It is a mark of our brother’s faithfulness in the work of the Lord right to the end of his life.
Writing principally to Jewish believers, James mentions five Old Testament characters from whom we can learn valuable lessons about faith and works. True salvation will always be demonstrated by a godly lifestyle. Although Martin Luther considered the letter ‘a right strawy epistle’, because he thought it compromised the truth of salvation by faith alone, in fact, James clearly illustrates from his chosen Old Testament characters that there is a connection between faith and Christian works. How true it is that ‘Faith alone saves but the faith that saves is not alone’! J. Ronald Blue puts it well when he says that ‘Spiritual works are the evidence, not the energizer, of sincere faith’.1
Abraham’s promise, 2. 20-24
Abraham is first mentioned in Genesis. There are two broad parts to this book: from Genesis 1 to 11 we have four key events, namely creation, the fall, the flood, and the Tower of Babel. The rest, by far the larger portion of Genesis, is given over to four characters: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Let us consider the patriarch Abraham.
Abraham’s affection – Terah was the father of Abraham (initially called Abram), Nahor and Haran, Gen. 11. 27. Abraham married Sarah (initially called Sarai) and they had a good marriage relationship, although sadly, while in Egypt, he referred to his wife as his sister, repeating the same lie in Gerar, 12. 11-13; 20. 2. However, when the God of glory called him from Ur of the Chaldees to Canaan, Abraham obeyed.2 There is no doubt that he showed love towards his family and his God.
Abraham’s belief – Abraham had a personal, working faith in God. Genesis chapter 15 occurs before chapter 22, making the point that we must have a personal faith in God before we can demonstrate it in our life. This was the case with Abraham, and a full chapter in the New Testament is devoted to this subject.3 Whereas in Romans chapter 3 verse 24 we have the divine side of salvation, Romans chapter 4 teaches our responsibility to exercise faith in God. Abraham’s faith shines out in verses 20 to 22: ‘He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness’. It is worth quoting James Stifler, ‘Weak faith looks at difficulties and scarcely looks to God. Strong faith looks at God who has promised, and does not see the difficulties’.4
Abraham’s conduct – Following Genesis chapter 22, James tells us that Abraham was prepared to obey God and offer Isaac, the son he loved, on one of the mountains of Moriah.5 James mentions a wonderful title given to Abraham elsewhere in scripture – ‘the Friend of God’.6 What a commendation! We all have the potential to be called a friend of God, but we need a personal, working faith in God for all the circumstances of life.
Isaac’s position, 2. 21
Like James, we will only mention Isaac in passing. He had the privilege of being brought up in a home where both his parents loved and obeyed the Lord. Isaac was born to Sarah and Abraham when they were old. His name means ‘laughter’, for he brought joy to his parents and is a lovely picture of the joy we have in the Lord. Psalm 16 verse 11 reminds us that in the Lord’s presence there is fullness of joy.
Rahab’s past, 2. 25
Rahab is the only Old Testament woman mentioned in James and this is significant. Salvation is for all, both Jew and Gentile, male and female, Gal. 3. 28. The blessing God wants to give His creatures is universal in its scope, for He ‘will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth’, 1 Tim. 2. 4. Only when people reject the truth of the gospel do they place themselves beyond God’s mercy.
Joshua, James and the writer of Hebrews all stress the background of Rahab, namely that she was a harlot, Josh. 2. 1-22; Heb. 11. 31. As ‘sinners saved by grace’, we are to remember not only what we’ve been saved from but also be thankful for God’s grace which has brought us into blessing. Rahab, along with three other women – Tamar, Ruth and Bathsheba – are mentioned in the genealogy of Christ, Matt. 1. 3, 5, 6. This illustrates the role of grace in the salvation of individuals.
As with Abraham, there is a strong link between true salvation and Rahab’s works of righteousness. Hiebert notes, ‘Her faith revealed itself in her deeds . . . Her works were entirely different than those of Abraham, but both alike prove that a living faith is a working faith’.7
Job’s patience, 5. 10, 11
Job is a remarkable Old Testament character. The book that carries his name opens with his plight when he lost one thing after another. Perhaps the most significant loss for Job was his family, Job 1. 18, 19. However, in the only New Testament book that mentions his name, the reference is to Job’s patience [endurance or steadfastness]. In order to learn some truths from Job, we shall consider:
- Jehovah – Challenged to consider Job’s amazing lifestyle, Satan argued that Job only served God because of the benefits he received. To prove how wrong he was, Jehovah granted him permission to remove those blessings. But what a glowing commendation God gave His servant! ‘There is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil’, 1. 8.
- Oppression – The trials faced by Job were numerous and occurred in quick succession, 1. 13-19. However, in all this, Job’s reaction was to worship the Lord, ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’, 1. 21. Newell comments, ‘James mentions the Old Testament prophets in general as faithful men grievously afflicted, who nevertheless bore up under the pressure. Then he turns to Job as the outstanding example of human endurance under strain. It is through his unparalleled sufferings that Job has become the divine model of fortitude for everyone under trial. Out of Job’s desolation have come strength and encouragement for untold generations of believers. Because he was miserable Job has become memorable’.8
- Blessing – The patience of Job is best seen in the last chapter of his book. We are reminded of Job’s faith in God when he says, ‘Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes’, 42. 6. He had a firm grasp of God and His word. We also note that Job enjoyed an increase in his fortunes, because ‘the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before . . . So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning’, 42. 10, 12. But how blessed was Job when he had a family again and lived to enjoy four generations thereafter, 42. 13, 16.
Elijah’s prayer, 5. 16-18
The final Old Testament character mentioned by James is Elijah, with the emphasis rightly placed on prayer. Consider:
- His holiness – In chapter 5 verse 16, James speaks of, ‘The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man’, which no doubt introduces the person of Elijah. As with the other Old Testament saints in James, the prophet Elijah was marked by faith in God that made him a righteous person. The same can be said of every genuine believer in Christ, namely that, ‘if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ’, Rom. 5. 17. Elijah also demonstrated a knowledge of the word of God, for his prayer was consistent with Deuteronomy chapter 11 verses 16 and 17, ‘Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; And then the Lord’s wrath be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest ye perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord giveth you’.
- His humanity – James states that Elijah was ‘a man subject to like passions as we are’, 5. 17. He was not an angelic being, but a ‘down to earth’ character whose example we can follow. Whatever difficulties he faced in life, we also face. Rather than putting him on a pedestal, we should follow the example of his godly life.
- His hard work – James emphasizes that Elijah prayed earnestly (ESV, ‘fervently’). His prayer did not follow a stale routine but was fresh and diligent. The same should be true of us in that our prayer should not consist of a mere form of words but spring from the heart and be based on the word.
- His honesty – Let us remember that when Elijah visited king Ahab he told him what he needed, rather than what he wanted, to hear, 1 Kgs. 17. 1. The same should be true of every child of God in that we are called to stand for the truth and tell sinners to ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ’, Acts 2. 38.
- His humility – Elijah was of a lowly spirit. ‘Prayer in private was the source of his power in public: he could stand unabashed in the presence of the wicked monarch because he had knelt in humility before God’.9
1 J. Ronald Blue, James in J. Walvoord and R. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament, Victor Books, 1983, pg. 826.
2 Acts 7. 2; Gen. 12. 1-5; Heb. 11. 8.
3 Rom. 4.
4 James Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans, Moody Press, 1978, pg. 83.
5 Gen. 22. 1-14; Heb. 11. 17-19.
6 2 Chr. 20. 7; Isa. 41. 8.
7 D. Edmond Hiebert, James, BMH Books, 2002, pg. 178.
8 David Newell, Job, What the Bible Teaches Old Testament Commentaries, Ritchie, 2017, pp. 80, 81.
9 A. W. Pink, Elijah, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997, pg. 24.