In a Nutshell
This warning is about the way the followers of Jesus form their corporate identity.
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What does this warning say about the responsibilities of the recipients of this letter, to those James is addressing?
Not many teachers, let there be [among you], my brothers and sisters, knowing that weightier judgement [is what] we shall receive.
This weighty judgement of James is a challenge to the expectations of his readers. To be enlisted in the school of Jesus Christ, to be a student of the Messiah is to learn of Him and to take His yoke upon ourselves. This is what all Christians must do, not only teachers. To take up the cross and follow after Him is to reckon with His teaching, His ministry, to accept His profession on our behalf. It is to keep His word, to walk in His ways. This does not involve the presumption that because we are students in His school, that we are thereby fit for the calling of teacher, the office of Rabbi. The responsibilities of any DIDASKOLOI are weighty. They are a burden requiring the entire extended family of the Lord to share the load (Galatians 6:1-6). Besides, being enrolled in Jesus' school means we are being fitted for the calling the Lord decides for us.
So saying, James challenges us about something we have often misunderstood. How strong is the expectation among Christian people that the young person who openly says "I am a follower of Christ Jesus" is on the way to becoming a preacher of the Gospel? James actually challenges this evangelistic presumption that is alive and well among many Christian people across our world. Admittedly, the idea will be modified somewhat by saying that all Christians are teachers of the gospel in an informal sense, and James is here concerned with the teaching office. I think, however, that James here challenges the assumption that to be a Christian one should assume the role of wise teacher of the Gospel. Let us explore this further.
James has just outlined the basic inner unity which binds faith and works, joy and trial, among all who believe, as they are bound in life together as a distinct people. They are people who are living by a law which emancipates them, with a wisdom that they have been given "from above". Their life is, in every respect, the ongoing blossoming of the favour of the Lord. In them the "light that will shine brightly on the nations" (Luke 2:21-22) now comes to glorious expression. They are called to be the fruitful demonstration of their Creator-Redeemer's purposes for His creation.
This Letter reiterates the teaching of Jesus, what He taught the twelve when he was confronted by an emerging agitation among them. They were incensed that James and John had been nominated by their mother as Jesus' left-hand and right-hand men. From what we can gather from the Gospel records, this was a sore point that Jesus had to address on not a few occasions, and perhaps the disciples didn't even begin to plumb the depths of Jesus' admonition:
… it shall not be so among you!
At least not until later, not until the penny dropped and they began to grasp the stupendous teaching that the Lord God, in His mercy, would only install the Messiah of Israel, as the ruler of the kings of the earth, after He had suffered, only after He had died, and risen and ascended to God's right hand. This letter, with the entire New Testament, is about the way the people of God - including ourselves in that - are transformed to experience a living awareness of how their instinctive expectations are being transformed by a word that set them free in joyful service:
If any man or woman be in Christ, [what] he or she [shall find] is a new creation; the old has passed, behold the new has come fresh (2 Cor 5:17).
This new identity is secured by God's gifts, so that as stewards of God's gifts we live by the grace of the One who now, forever and henceforth, restores God's likeness in the human race. The task is given to these people and they are not to live presumptively, as if their identity is established by what they DO. Since they are but brothers and sisters of the Lord Jesus Himself, they are called to live joyful and patient lives in trying times, reckoning with the gift of life as recipients of a glorious mercy, the "first fruits of God's handiwork" (1:18). They are but a company of people becoming wise in deeds of pure religion, mimicking what God in Christ has done for an orphaned and widowed world (1:27). And so, both those with abundance and those with great material need are united together in a living healthy community, serving each other and praising the Lord by lives of joyful emancipation. This is also why the Gospel is the definitive announcement of a re-creation. At creation God had said, again and again:
Let there be!
But now the Lord of Glory has appeared to historically call forth a new people:
Let there be a living healthy community of people brought together by My son to display my mercy in love to all their neighbours, to all the world!
And so, James must issue his weighty and wise judgement:
Let there NOT be many teachers among you …
Why? The important thing for this community is WHO they are. WHO they are should then characterise WHAT they DO. By elevating any one task, in this case teaching, a community will too easily become known by this predominant profession in their midst. It might also mean that they are on the way to being known as a community from what they say. No. Their life together should be characterised by a faithful service which integrates everything they DO, and that is to come to expression in what they say - and how they say it - to themselves, to their neighbours, but it is not firstly a matter of mouthing words. Faith, in the first instance, is a matter of a believing heart, and then comes a confession of the mouth. Faith is not generated by putting faith words onto one's lips.
In the same way, by elevating any human task, for instance that of lawyers and interpreters of the law, they would be on the way to becoming known for the pointing finger rather than for their merciful service! For them to act presumptively is to ignore their corporate identity in Christ and so they would forsake priestly service, turning the law of life into a lie (see Jeremiah 8:8). We recall from the discussion immediately before this, how James exposed the way "mere faith talk" involves fraudulence (2:14-16). Then the priestly service that has always been the calling of the people of the Lord (Jeremiah 7:1-7) is renounced and a life separating faith and works is the outcome.
James will now expose the underlying problem which all teachers confront: the human condition in which the tongue gives itself permission to roam far and wide in its hellish campaign. Being emancipated by the Messiah brings great wisdom and other benefits, but James emphasizes that it is of utmost importance for the dispersed community of Jesus' disciples to grow in wisdom,
Not merely in word and tongue, but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:18).
in a life that speaks wisdom, not merely mouthing off words.