Rough Water in Acts and James

It is interesting how reading patterns affect what you see in scripture. I think this is my third time through the Tyndale House Greek New Testament (THGNT), but it is the first time I’ve noticed how the theme of rough water spills over from Acts into James.

You see, the order of the NT books is different in the THGNT. In the introduction, they write:

Only a small proportion of New Testament manuscripts contain all 27 books, and book order is not uniform. The order in which we have presented the books—Gospels, Acts, the Catholic Epistles, the Pauline corpus, Revelation—reflects the strong tendency to place the Catholic Epistles immediately after Acts.

This means that James immediately follows Acts.

For the past few weeks, I’ve lingered long over Acts 17–28. It’s a sort of travel journal full of ships and sailing, stormy waters and shipwreck. Just yesterday, I read Acts 27 twice, and it turned out to be a interesting backdrop to James 1.

In Acts 27, Luke narrates Paul’s perilous journey across the Mediterranean and ends with the crash landing at the island of Malta. During the trip, Paul serves as a prophet warning of impending danger and then promising safety to the sailors if they all stay on board. Those commanding the ship didn’t pay attention to him at first, but when all hope was lost Paul’s words served as a lifeline.

In James 1, the faithless person is compared to waves of the sea that are blown and tossed by the wind. Listen to James’ words with the scene set by the stormy waters around Malta:

εἰ δέ τις ὑμῶν λείπεται σοφίας, αἰτείτω παρὰ τοῦ διδόντος θεοῦ πᾶσιν ἁπλῶς καὶ μὴ ὀνειδίζοντος, καὶ δοθήσεται αὐτῷ. αἰτείτω δὲ ἐν πίστει μηδὲν διακρινόμενος· ὁ γὰρ διακρινόμενος ἔοικεν κλύδωνι θαλάσσης ἀνεμιζομένῳ καὶ ῥιπιζομένῳ.

If someone lacks wisdom, they should ask from the God who gives without reservation or reproach, and it will be given to them. They should ask in faith, not doubting. You see, the person who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is blown and thrown around by the wind.

James 1:5–6

This time, for the first time, I heard James but saw images of Acts 27. I think about “the person who doubts,” and I recall how the sailors doubted and Paul was unwavering. Paul is a model of someone who doesn’t doubt. The sailors doubt, lack wisdom, and nearly die.

To push a little more on this figural reading, some people hear James’ words about doubting and not receiving, and they fear, which leads to more doubt. The sailors with Paul are instructive here. They are tossed about, but they eventually come around. All is not lost if you doubt and are tossed around by life. Learn from your failures, return to the Word, trust, and eventually you’ll make it to Malta.

Hearing James in light of Acts creates a completely different tone and ethos. It’s an interesting connection and one I’ll likely keep pondering.

UPDATE 9/12/20

One more nautical conection between Acts and James: In 3:4, James speaks of how a ship is easily driven by the wind and how someone can steer it with small rudder (πηδάλιον). The only other occurrence of this word in the NT is in Acts 27:40. Just before they crash at Malta, they cut loose the anchors and loosen the things binding the rudders (πηδάλιον).