The Letter of James: Critical Introduction and Exegesis by Jimmy Dukes
THE LETTER OF JAMES
Critical Introduction and Exegetical Notes
The Epistle of James, following the major Epistle to the Hebrews, is the first in a group of letters in the New Testament referred to as the General Epistles. These letters came to be called general epistles because they do not seem to be addressed to a particular congregation but to the church as a whole, or to a large segment of it. There are seven general epistles: James, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and Jude.
Interest in James has been variable through the history of the Christian church. Some early church fathers alluded to James: Hermas in The Shepherd (c. 110-140) and Irenaeus (140-203). Some feel that Clement of Rome (before 100) referred to the epistle, but this is not generally accepted. Origen (185-253) was the first to refer to James as Scripture.
In the Western church, James was not completely accepted until the end of the fourth century. The Synod of Hippo in 393 and the Third Council of Carthage in 397 affirmed James as a part of the canon. However, before those councils, Jerome (with some reservations) and Augustine accepted it.
The evidence in the Eastern church is stronger. James was included in the Old Syriac version (c. 200) although that version did not include 2 John, 3 John, Jude, or Revelation. James was accepted by Athanasius (298-373) and Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390), Crysostom (347-407), and many others.
The historical evidence shows that the epistle came slowly into general circulation, especially in the West where its canonicity was long questioned. Even after the church generally accepted James as a part of the canon, there was some doubt about its authenticity and usefulness. The most famous opposition to the epistle was that of Martin Luther who called it a "right strawy epistle." Luther's remarks can be attributed to his emphasis on faith as the sole means of salvation. Luther and others have seen James' writing to be in opposition to the message of Paul concerning faith. We will discuss that issue a little later.
Whatever historical evidence may say to us about the acceptance or rejection of James as a genuine epistle, we do realize that the epistle came to be accepted by the church as a part of its canon. The epistle has much to offer us in the way of advice and guidance for Christian living.
The epistle begins with the simple identification of the author as James, literally the Hebrew name Jacob. There are four men by the name of James mentioned in other places in the New Testament:
1. James the son of Alphaeus (Mt 10:3), perhaps a brother of Matthew
2. James the Less (Mk 15:24), perhaps the same as the above
3. James the son of Zebedee (Acts 2:12 and other places), the brother of John the Beloved disciple. He was killed by Herod Agrippa I in a.d. 44.
4. James the brother of Jesus (Mk 6:3; Mt 13:55) (See Joseph B. Mayor, The Epistle of James for an extensive discussion of the argument over the meaning of "brother of Jesus." This James was:
a.One of four brothers of Jesus. The others are named as Joses, Juda, and Simon
b.Unsympathetic to Jesus at first (Jn 7:5; Mk 3:21, 31-35)
c.Received a special post-resurrection appearance by Jesus (1 Cor15:7)
d.Early pastor/leader in Jerusalem church (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18)
e.With disciples in upper room (Acts 1:14)
f. Moderator of the Council in Acts 15
g. Identified by Paul as the brother of the Lord (Gal 1:19; 2:9-10)
h. Josephus and Eusebius say that James refused to deny Jesus before the Jewish authorities and was brought to trial, condemned, and put to death by stoning about a.d. 62.
The Jewish flavor of the epistle would be consistent with the authorship of James, the Lord's brother, as would the similarities between this letter and the letter to the Gentile churches in Acts 15. However there are other arguments both for and against James the brother of Jesus as author of this epistle.
The author does not claim specifically that he was a close associate of Jesus or even that he was an eyewitness of the events surrounding the life of Jesus. He mentions the name of Jesus only two times (1:1 and 2:1), but he also uses Lord in 1:7; 4:10; 4:15; 5:7; 5:8; 5:14; 5:15 with possible references to Jesus. The absence of a specific claim on the part of the author to any special relationship to Jesus has led some commentators to conclude that he was not one of the original followers of Jesus. Their argument is that if he had been an eyewitness he would have said so. This argument is from silence, and an argument from silence is hard to sustain. These same scholars argue that 2 Peter was not written by Peter because the author claims to have been Peter.
The internal evidence would not rule out the possibility that this James was the half-brother of Jesus. The language, style, and vocabulary would fit a Palestinian Jew coming from a background steeped in the Old Testament.
It is also noteworthy that there are similarities in vocabulary, style, and grammar to the letter written by James, the brother of Jesus, in Acts 15. Tasker pointed out the similarities in the letter in Acts and this epistle. The form to greet at the beginning of the letters is the same. Brethren, hearken unto me in James 2:5 and the Acts letter are also the same. The word to visit is found in both. These and other similarities are remarkable in view of the brevity of the passage in Acts.
The author surely had in his possession many of the words of Jesus, including the Sermon on the Mount. In James one repeatedly meets phrases and sayings that recall the teaching of Jesus. However, it is not that James is consciously or deliberately quoting from Jesus. In fact, he does not seem to be quoting at all. These thoughts and expressions seem to have become a part of his thinking as a result of his long association with Jesus.
J. B. Mayor lists the following similarities between James and the Sermon on the Mount:
1. A spiritual view of the law: James 1:25; 2:8, 12-13 --- Mt 3:3-12
2. The blessings of adversity: James 1:2-3, 12; 2:5; 5:7-8, 11 -- Mt 5:3-12
3. The danger and uncertainty of wealth: James 1:10-11; 2:6-7; 4:4, 6, 13-16; 5: 1-6 --- Mt 6:19-21, 24-34
4. The futility of a mere profession of religion: James 1:26-27 --- Mt 6:1-7
5. The contrast between saying and doing: James 1:22-25; 2:14-26; 3:13, 18 --- Mt 7:15-27.
6. The true nature of prayer: James 1:5-8; 4:3; 5:13-18 --- Mt 6:6-13
7. The incompatibility between the love of the world and the love of God: James 2:5; 3:6; 4:4-8 --- Mt 6:24
8. The need to forgive others to receive forgiveness: James 2:12-13; --- Mt 6:14-15
9. The tree known by its fruit: James 3:11-12 --- Mt 7:16-20
10. The interdiction of oaths: James 5:12 --- Mt 5:34-37
11. The interdiction of censoriousness: James 4:11-12 --- Mt 7:1-5
12. The praise of singleness of aim: James 1:8; 4:8 --- Mt 6:22-23
Hiebert makes a good presentation of the internal evidence concerning authorship of the epistle. He makes the following arguments for James, the Lord's brother:
1. The simple opening identification, James, would point to one who was as well known as James the Lord's brother
2. The author's Jewish background shown in his familiarity with the Old Testament and with Jewish forms of thought and expression: 2:21; 5:4
3. The similarities between this epistle and the speech of James in Acts 15
4. Numerous similarities between this epistle and Jesus' teaching, especially the Sermon on the Mount
5. Social and economic conditions among the people reflected in the epistle
Hiebert also presents the internal evidence against James, the Lord's brother as the author:
1. The Greek of James has been called excellent. Hiebert notes, rightly, that the Greek is good, but could not be called excellent in a linguistic sense. Certainly James, from Galilee, would have been familiar with the Greek language as a result of the Hellenization of that part of the world.
2. Scant Christian content. This is a vague argument. If James wrote early, the Jewish influence of the letter would be an argument for his authorship. In addition, the letter was likely written before some of the issues that were later discussed in the church arose.
3. The author's claims. The argument goes along the lines that James, as the Lord's brother and having the position of apostle in its looser sense, would certainly have claimed those distinctions. However, it seems to me that the simplicity of the designation of the author's name would be a strong argument that he was one who was well known and readily recognized.
4. Hellenistic features of the epistle. This is a serious issue; however, remember that James was from Galilee where many Gentiles lived and that the Hellenistic influence in Galilee was likely stronger than in Judea. James, and Jesus as well, likely had more Hellenistic influence on their early lives than we sometimes realize.
5. Conditions among readers. The argument is that the sins rebuked in the epistle would have taken a long time to develop. However, remember that the Corinthians did not take a long time to develop the difficulties that Paul dealt with in the Corinthian correspondence.
6. Literary dependence on 1 Peter and/or some of Paul's writing. This allegation is by no means certain. The similarities in the writings could easily be attributed to the common stock of thought.
Nystrom notes that James gives evidence of being familiar with early Christianity, Judaism, and Hellenism. He said James can be identified in the context of the early form of Christian writings: the Synoptics, Paul, and John. He is also familiar with Judaism as is seen in his use of Old Testament concepts and characters. His language and literary style give evidence of familiarity with Hellenistic culture.
The Shepherd of Hermas (c. 110-140) alludes to James as does Irenaeus (140-203). There are some who feel that Clement of Rome (before 100) referred to the epistle, but this feeling cannot be proven. James Moffat accepts the probability that Hermas' allusion to James is strong enough to establish a terminal date for the epistle (140). The Muratorian Canon (before 200) does not mention James, but since the text of the canon is mutilated, the omission may be accidental.
Origen (c. 185-254) was the first to cite James as Scripture. Although he was aware that the epistle was not accepted as scripture, he did not hesitate to use it as such. Origen attributed it to James the Lord's brother. As Moo notes, the reason for the late attestation may be partly due to the fact that the church in Palestine was so strongly affected by the Jewish revolts of the mid and late first century.
Eusebius (325) put James in the category of the disputed books. He distinguished between the disputed books and the ones rejected by the church. His note is that some accepted James as Scripture while others did not. Concerning James, he said, "not many of the ancient have mentioned it," but he went on to say, "Nevertheless we know that these are publicly used in most of the churches."
As I have already said, the epistle did not receive early acceptance in the Western church. Jerome (with some reservations) and Augustine accepted it as did Cyril, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Athanasius in his thirty-ninth festal letter in 367 where he gives us a listing of the canonical books that includes the same books as our New Testament. Others in the Western Church did not accept it. The evidence in the Eastern church is fuller. James was contained in the Old Syriac version (c.200) although 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation were not included there.
Arguments Against James as Author
1. The epistle is pseudonymous. Those who hold this position think that some unknown teacher wrote the epistle under the guise of being the Lord's brother. Aside from the moral and ethical issues of pseudonymous writing, the acceptance of another writing in the name of James ignores the inspiration and veracity of the epistle. It is difficult to believe that the early church, under the leadership of the Spirit, could be so easily fooled. Aside from being fooled, it seems illogical to think that the church would have accepted the Letter if it knew the writer were someone pretending to be James. In addition, the absence of any attempt to claim authority and authenticity for the writer and the absence of any heretical teaching in the epistle argue against pseudonymity.
2. A closely related view is that the epistle was written by another James who was mistakenly associated with James the brother of the Lord. The simple identification of James would argue against this position. Another James would most likely identify himself further.
3. Spitta's view (1896) was that a collection of moral instructions written by a Palestinian Jew was adapted by a later writer by adding a few Christian touches. However, this is not likely because one seeking to do such a thing would likely have added more "Christian touches" in an effort to authenticate the work.
4. Arnold Meyer (1930) thought James was originally a Jewish allegorical work based on Jacob and his farewell address to his sons. He thought it was later adapted as a Christian work with the names of Jacob's sons being interpreted allegorically. The theory is highly ingenious but highly unlikely.
5. Sermonic material from James that was later adapted by a follower in its present form.
These theories seem to be inspired by the desire to explain a later date for the epistle. They are not any more sustainable than the traditional view of authorship and date.
Conclusion Concerning Authorship
The traditional evidence pointing to James, the half-brother of Jesus, as the author is fairly strong. There seems to have been some early acceptance of the epistle and James as its author, then some doubt, and finally acceptance in the canon of the Christian Scripture. It is true that this epistle was one of the latest to gain acceptance into the canon, and it is true that there was some reluctance to accept James as the author. However, in general the traditional could be said to favor James.
According to Alfred Plummer the doubts about the epistle were provoked by two facts:
1. The epistle had remained unknown to a good many churches for some time
2. When it became known it remained uncertain that the author was an apostle
Dr. Billy Simmons suggests that James was not readily accepted because of the local nature of the ministry of James. He suggests further that the canon was largely a Gentile process and that James, being a local leader of the Jewish-Christian church, did not have a great deal of recognition or influence in the Gentile church until later.
These doubts lingered longest in the Western church where strong emphasis was placed on apostolic authorship for a book to be admitted into the canon. In the East the epistle was admitted quite early, probably because it was first sent to the churches in Syria.
In all of the annals of first century Christianity, there is not another James who commanded such respect from the church as did the half-brother of Jesus. The fact that the author only identifies himself with the simple designation “James” and the fact that he so often uses the teachings of Jesus in his letter both argue for James, the brother of Jesus as author. These facts tend to strengthen the argument that he is indeed the author of the epistle, though it is not incontrovertible. Those who advocate other than the traditional views of authorship, especially when the author is identified in the text by name, bear the burden of proving their cases. I think that we are on safe ground to assume that this epistle was likely written by James, the half-brother of Jesus.
The First Readers
There certainly can be no dogmatism where the identity of the first readers of this epistle is concerned. The only clue to their identity to be found in the epistle is in the salutation in 1:1. James calls them "the twelve tribes in the dispersion."
Many ingenious theories have been devised from this cryptic reference to the recipients of this letter. It is quite probable that they were Jewish Christians who had moved away from Jerusalem for one reason or another, and it is doubtful that they were concentrated in one locale. This letter was probably sent as an encyclical letter to the Jewish Christian community at large. That is the most natural interpretation of the salutation, and there seems to me to be no reason to look for further explanations.
Whether these people left Jerusalem for some specific reason such as a local persecution cannot be definitely ascertained. The first exhortation in the letter might lend itself to such an interpretation, but this would only be speculative. It would be best, therefore, to characterize the first readers of the letter as members of the Jewish Christian community who had moved from Jerusalem to some area outside Judea. Syria might be a good guess.
Date and Place of Writing
The desire to make the date later than the life of James because of the conditions seen in the letter or the supposed conflict with Paul has caused many to suggest a later date, on up into the second century. However, starting from the point of the traditional view of origin for the letter, we can conclude that an early date is not unacceptable.
If we assume that James, the half-brother of Jesus was the author, we will have to place some restriction on the date of writing for the epistle. There are strong indications in Acts and 1 Corinthians that James, the brother of Jesus was an early leader in the Jerusalem church. External sources (Eusebius and Josephus) indicate that James was martyred by stoning at the hands of the Jews about A.D. 61-62. The letter could have been written at anytime during the twenty-five to thirty year period in which James led the Jerusalem church. We know from Acts that the persecution and subsequent scattering of the Christians from Jerusalem began early. It is possible that James wrote the letter as early as the mid-forties. If so, James would be the first letter written that is a part of the canon of Scripture. The most probable date would be 45-48.
There is no evidence that James ever left the Jerusalem area. Therefore, it is likely that the letter was written from Jerusalem. Again, the most natural understanding is that James wrote the letter in Jerusalem and sent it as an encyclical from himself to the Jewish Christians who had fled Jerusalem because of the persecution that came to the early church or because of some other reason. Those who would advocate some other position on authorship, date, and recipients bear the burden of proof.
Purpose and Theme
It is difficult to state with any assurance just what was the main purpose of this letter. Some have called the epistle a disconnected group of moral homilies, reminiscent of the Proverbs or other Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, and a cursory reading of the epistle bears that conclusion out to some degree.
Probably the main theme of the letter that could be said to be a binding force is the emphasis on the practical expression of a faith relationship with God in the life of the believer. This expression can be seen or at least inferred in every section of the letter. James saw the faith relationship between God and man through Jesus as a result of the grace and generosity of God. He also saw the relationship resulting in practical Christian living. The emphasis in James is not on the works that result from the relationship but on the generous grace of God and on the relationship coming out of that grace that is demonstrated in right action.
As is true in most documents, the purpose and theme are inextricably bound to one another. The ultimate purpose and expression of the theme of the epistle could be said to be that the author is seeking to encourage the readers in their Christian pilgrimage and to impress on them the need to remember the generosity of God in providing the opportunity for a relationship. The result of remembering the generous grace of God would be the practical manifestation of the faith relationship in their Christian living. The theme seems to me to predate the teaching of Paul about faith as it is expressed in Romans and Galatians especially, but it should not be seen to be inconsistent with it. Paul says more about it, but his words are not inconsistent with the words of James.
James is telling the Jewish Christians that there are two voices that wage war within them: the foolishness of the flesh and the wisdom of the Spirit. The wisdom is that they must accept the generous grace of God, come into a faith relationship with him and develop the character of Christ by obeying the royal law of love and becoming holy. Pure and perfect religion is to agree to love others as God loves them and to become holy in cooperation with Christ (1:27). This ties all the themes together.
1. Generous grace of God
2. Acceptance of that grace--making decisions to become selfless rather than selfish
3. Walk in faith relationship--developing the character of Christ
4. Loving as Christ loves
5. Become holy
Nature of the Literature
The epistle has been characterized by some as representative of Jewish wisdom literature like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. In fact some have gone so far as to say that it is not a Christian document and that it is sub-Christian in its emphasis. There can be little doubt that James writes in the characteristic style of the Jewish wisdom literature. In spite of the fact that the themes of James are not as complete as those set forth by Paul, it is too much to say that James is "sub-Christian." The themes in James can more readily be explained by the early date of the letter and the audience. James assumed the Christian faith of his readers. His letter is directed to those who are Christians to give them advice on living their Christian lives in the context of their social and economic environment.
Others have characterized the letter as a moral homily. The letter does look more like an exhortation than a letter, especially if you take away the first two verses. However, if we try to imagine the situation of James as the leader of the Jerusalem church trying to communicate with the members of that church who have left Jerusalem for some reason, we can more easily see that he is writing a letter to them to encourage them to live their lives according to the principles that they have learned in their early Christian experiences.
The Epistle of James and the Teachings of Paul
At least since the time of Martin Luther there have been those who have pointed to James' emphasis on works as a contradiction to Paul's doctrine of justification by grace through faith apart from the works of the law. However, this assumption is merely a misunderstanding of the differences in the milieu of James and Paul and the differences in the way they used certain terms.
Luther did not like the epistle because he had just come out of Roman Catholicism and had been immersed in the Roman Catholic interpretation of some passages, especially in Romans, that caused him to disparage the writing of James. Luther said that he would not include James in his canon. He would not forbid people to read it, but he did not see any good they would get out of it.
Luther also would have left Revelation out of the canon because he said that the book pronounced a curse on anyone who did not read and keep the teachings of the book. His reasoning was that no one could keep what he could not understand.
It is true that the teaching of Paul on grace and faith in relation to works is more fully developed and it gives us important insights into understanding how we are saved by grace through faith apart from the law. However, we must remember that Paul was facing the opposition of the legalists who insisted that one must keep the works of the law to be saved. On the other hand, James was emphasizing that faith that is not illustrated by good works is good for nothing. It is not real faith. From both writers we could conclude that one is saved by grace through faith and that the resulting relationship produces good works.
Look at a comparison of some of the key words from both writers:
1. Saved: For James and Paul the word refers to a deliverance from sin that is experienced in the present through faith in Christ. For both the result of salvation is a life lived in the newness of fellowship with Christ. Paul says more about it, but what James says is not inconsistent with what Paul says.
2. Works: For James the word refers to works of charity and sympathetic ministry to the needy that are the result of salvation. -- For Paul the word sometimes refers to the religious ceremonies and observances depended on by some as a means of salvation. However, Paul also uses the word (as in Eph 2:8-10) to refer to the resultant activity that comes from the salvation experience.
3. Justification/righteousness: In James this concept is a demonstration of the genuineness of a man's profession. In Paul it is a right standing before God through faith in Christ. Paul insisted that a man is made right before God because of his personal faith in Christ apart from any religious merit. James says that a man gives evidence of the genuineness of his Christian profession through a life of compassion and sympathetic ministry to the needy. James actually does not enter the discussion of whether a man is saved by faith or works. His concern, rather, is to show that the faith which saves also expresses itself in works of compassion and charity.
Old Testament Imagery
James was quite familiar with Old Testament imagery and there are echoes of it throughout the epistle:
1. 1:1: the twelve tribes in reference to Israel
2. 1:17: "the Father of Lights" is a reference to God as the creator of the universe, the stars, the heavens
3. 1:18: "the first fruits" is characteristic of Old Testament imagery
4. 2:1: "the glory" may have reference to the shechinah. This is not an Old Testament word but a rabbinic word. What the rabbi spoke of was the revealed presence of God as revealed in the pillar of fire or the cloud of the Exodus. Israel knew He was there and knew what He was like because of His revealed presence.
5. 4:4: "adulteresses" probably refers to spiritual impurity and infidelity as the term was often used in the OT to describe the unfaithfulness of the Israelites to God.
6. 4:12: the phrase "able to save and destroy" is an OT reference to God as the supreme judge over all the earth.
7. 5:4: "the Lord of Sabaoth" may be a reference to the Father or to Christ. Note that the term is not "Lord of the Sabbath" but "Sabaoth," the Captain of God's army, the Lord of Hosts.
The Theology of James
5. Spiritual Growth
Davids, 7. Consult the Bibliography for books that deal extensively with the introductory issues in James. See especially Adamson, Stulac, Davids, Moo, Richardson, and Mayor.
Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.23.
See especially Moo, Stulac, Davids, Adamson, and Richardson for a discussion of theological issues. These issues will be discussed in class on Friday as a result of the assignments made at the beginning of the week.
The Greeting 1:1
1:1 James, a bond slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ to the twelve tribes in the diaspora, rejoice!
The letter begins with the simple designation James, literally the Hebrew form Jacob. The only certain information that we have about the author is his name. I am working from the assumption that the author was James, the half-brother of Jesus. Note that James did not claim any special physical kinship to Jesus, choosing only to refer to his spiritual relationship. Neither did James mention his position in the church, either as the leader of the Jerusalem church or as an apostle. James was not an apostle in the original sense, because he did not go out from Jerusalem with the Gospel as the apostles did. His calling and role reminds us that there are different jobs for different people. God calls some to go and some to stay.
It may be that the reason for the absence of any other reference is that James would have been known to his readers without any explanation of his identity, but there is at least the suggestion of humility in his greeting. This humility would be consistent with what we know about James from the New Testament and from church tradition.
Consider the setting of James’ life. If we assume that he is writing during the period of persecution by the Jewish leaders (Acts 8:1-3), it is noteworthy that James was one of the Jewish Christians who remained in Jerusalem. While he could address the Jewish Christians in the letter about the persecution that they had suffered from their religious leaders that had caused them to flee their homes, James was writing from the perspective that he remained in the city in the midst of the persecution. That awareness gives us a clearer picture of what being a slave of God meant to James.
James identifies himself as a bond slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. The order in Greek gives emphasis to the fact that James considered his master more important than his servanthood. The construction also gives emphasis to an important theological note: James speaks of the Father and the Son on equal terms. It is only in such constructions as these that we can clearly see what the early church believed about our doctrine of the Trinity. If James is the earliest of the NT books, it is significant that the equality of the Father and Son is being professed so early.
To understand the full impact of the statement by James that he was a bond slave of the Father and Son, we must go back to his early life. The brothers of Jesus were not early followers; in fact, they likely did not think too highly of the ministry of Jesus. At one point his family tried to get him to return home because they thought that he was crazy. We can picture James among these skeptics. It may be that the reason for this skepticism lay partly in the fact that Joseph had died and that Jesus, according to custom, as the oldest son was expected to provide for the family. Yet, the day came when Jesus walked away from the carpenter shop to fulfill a higher calling. We can be sure that Jesus did not leave the family without care, but we may see some cause of the resentment of Jesus by James and the other brothers in this.
At the crucifixion we see not one of the brothers present. When Jesus gave his mother to the care of another, it was his beloved disciple that he charged with her care. The reason may be that James and the others were not there. Now, only 15-25 years later we see James exercising an accepted role of leadership in the church. What has happened? Paul mentions in 1 Cor 15 that James was among those to whom the Lord appeared after his resurrection. Since we have no record of Jesus appearing to anyone but believers, we may surmise that James had become a believer sometime between the last days of the ministry of Jesus and the resurrection. Whatever the case, James obviously went on to become a leader in the church. Now as he identifies himself, it is not as the Lord's brother, or as the leader of the church in Jerusalem, or as an apostle, but as the bond slave of the Father and Son. James had an interesting experience in his life. He saw Jesus from the perspective of brother, messiah, and Lord.
Bond slave is the Greek word doulos. The word "slave" in Greek literature was a very harsh word. The Greek slave was not a person, but property belonging to someone else. Aristotle said that there were two kinds of instruments: the inanimate instrument and the animate instrument. The inanimate he classified as the hoe, the shovel, and the plow; the animate tools he classified as the ox, the mule, and the slave. In fact, this word was so harsh in Greek that when the Hebrew OT was translated into Greek the Greek word pais, meaning "boy," or “boy slave” was substituted for doulos as a translation for the Hebrew ebed.
The Hebrew term ebed Yahweh, servant of God, was never translated doulos kurios, but always pais kurios in the OT. That concept also has some significance in the background of James’ identification of himself. The “servant of the Lord” was a significant designation in the Old testament. Moses, Abraham, David, and others were known by that name. The term designated a special relationship to god, authority, and honor.
However, by the time that the NT was written, the writers, including James, had chosen to use the word doulos to describe the relationship of the believer to the Father and the Son. It seems clear that the NT writers used the term doulos with the Hebrew background of slavery in mind rather than the Greek background. It is still a harsh word, but from its Hebrew background it has a significant statement to make about the relationship of the believer to God. That background can be seen in Exodus 21:1-6:
And these are the ordinances which thou shalt set before them, if thou buy a Hebrew servant (pais), six years shall he serve thee and then the seventh year he shall go forth free for nothing. If he should have come in alone, he shall also go forth alone. And if his wife should have gone in together with him, his wife should go out; moreover, if his master gave him a wife and she hath borne him sons and daughters the wife and the children shall be the master's and he shall go forth alone. And if the servant (pais) should answer and say I love my master and wife and children; I will not go away free, the master shall bring him to the judgement seat of God and then shall he bring him to the door, to the doorpost and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl and he shall serve him forever.
Doulos in the Hebrew sense was a slave who chose to be a slave forever because he loved his master and his family and he did not want to leave them. Before witnesses he was willing to be marked with a hole in his ear made by an awl to signify that he had become a bond slave forever.
This idea is very meaningful in the NT sense. Paul, James, and others who claimed to be the douloi of Christ were saying their ownership and will were completely swallowed up in his. The bond slave is the person whose desires are completely dictated by the desires of the master. The word denotes a total, permanent, voluntary slavery. James is saying, I belong to Jesus. I belong to him completely. I belong to him forever. I belong to him because I chose to belong to him. He is my master. He is my Lord. I serve him because I want to serve him, not because I have been forced to serve him but because I want to serve him. The concepts of wisdom, perfect law of liberty, and royal law in James must be interpreted in the light of this relationship.
To the twelve tribes in the dispersion. Some commentators point out that this designation may not mean that James is writing to Jews outside of Palestine because of two reasons. First, all of the twelve tribes were represented in Palestine. The twelve tribes were lost when the ten northern tribes were carried away into captivity by Sargon II, and their identity was lost to a great degree. The twelve tribes came to be more of a connotation for the perfect religion, the people of god. This understanding became more clear in the NT.
A second suggestion is that James is using the twelve tribes in this latter sense, to represent the true church. The NT does indicate that the church was equated with the true Israel. At the early date of this letter it is doubtful that there would be as much difference in the terminology as there was later on. Moo suggests that the reference is to believers living in this world as opposed to their “homeland.”
From the time of the original captivity in Babylon the Jews had scattered at several significant times in history. From that captivity on there have always been more Jews outside Palestine than inside it. However, these scattered Jews remained loyal to their homeland even though their lives were tied to their new places of residence. They sought to return to Palestine whenever they could, at least once in the lifetime of every man.
If we accept that James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, we can assume that James' primary audience would be those Jewish Christians who had left Jerusalem because of persecution in the early days of the church. That persecution is well documented in Act 8:1-3 and in other places. It is not difficult to assume that the number of Jewish Christians in scattered areas would be significantly large. It is also logical that the Christians in Jerusalem would continue to be concerned about them. It is likely that James is writing to them as a part of his pastoral concern.
Rejoice The more familiar letters of Paul have made us aware of the Christian custom of altering the common Greek greeting in letters from rejoice to grace and peace. Peter also used a form of the altered greeting in 1 Peter and 2 Peter. Some commentators have encountered difficulty with the form of the greeting here. James used the normal Greek greeting, the infinitive form of the verb meaning to rejoice or have joy. The form was used in literary writing as well as common letters in the Hellenistic world of the first century.
We should not be surprised that the normal Greek greeting is used here. Paul was likely the influence that changed the greeting to have a more Christian distinction. Since James likely wrote earlier than the other writers in the NT, he probably used the common greeting because he was accustomed to it. It is the same greeting used in the letter written by James in Acts 15.
James writes to these scattered Jewish Christians with the clear understanding of what they are going through. It is in spite of the difficulty of their circumstances that they can be joyful servants of God in the scattered areas even as James and the others are in Jerusalem. The place of abode for a believer does not determine his joy. It comes from the faith relationship with Jesus and the resultant indwelling of the Spirit. The joy is inside and is therefore permanent, not dependent on outside circumstances.
The unifying theme of faith runs throughout the letter, but it is especially evident in this first chapter. It permeates the discussion of every issue. James assumes a faith relationship with God through Jesus and reminds the believers that everything they are and do is colored by that relationship. Every right decision and every right action of the believers is the result of the relationship with Christ that has changed them.
I. FAITH AND TRIALS 1:2-4
1:2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you fall among various trials,
Count it all joy. James does not begin to discuss trials with the platitude that he understands their trials and sympathizes with them. Nor does he tell them that everything will be all right. James realized that things generally are not all right because of the difficulties faced by Christians in living where we live. What James does is to help the believers to understand how to react to the trials of life in the context of faith in Christ.
Count comes from a word that means to be in first place or chief. The same word is sometimes translated governor or prince. The derived idea is to lead, to put in first place, or regard highly or place in high esteem. James is saying that trials will come. The goal of the believer is to put them in perspective. Our first thought is not to rejoice in trials.
Joy is an inner sense of well being in the face of adversity or any other outward circumstance that the believer may face. It is something that comes from the inside because of a faith relationship to Christ rather than a feeling or emotion that comes from outward circumstances. It is possible for a believer to have deep joy in the face of difficult tribulation, not because he enjoys the tribulation but because he knows to whom he belongs. Davids indicates that this is an eschatalogical joy. However, it seems to me that it is much more than that. It has an eschatalogical element in it because all things will be set right in the consummation, and believers can look forward to that. However, it is not pie-in-the-sky. Believers live in the here and now, and it is not enough for us just to think that things will work out all right someday. Jesus said, "I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly." The life he gives is eternal; eternal is not just in the future. The emphasis is on the quality. That quality of life is ours now; it is not just a promise for the future.
We can trust God to take care of us in the midst of trials. Sometimes he ends them for us and sometimes he brings us through them, as in the disciples' encounter with the storm on Galilee. However, sometimes the circumstances of life overcome people. Even in those circumstances we do not always have the answer for them, but we can know that the believer who is relying on Jesus can remain calm in the midst of the storms because even in those dire circumstances the joy for the believer comes from the assurance that even death does not end the relationship.
The construction that James uses here, (aorist tense) indicates that the believer is to make a definite decision that his reaction to trials will be joy. If that is our decision and outlook, trials can be overcome in one way or another. If we make that decision in advance based on our faith in him, we can have joy.
My brothers is a form of address that indicates that James is writing to the Christians. It is also an indication that we are not in this alone, but that Christian fellowship is important in dealing with the difficulties of life.
Trials is an objective word. It can have a good connotation or a bad one. In this case it seems that the connotation is good as opposed to the usage in verse thirteen. The usage of the word here indicates trials that come to us as a result of life; it is not a reference to temptation to evil as it is in verse thirteen. We live in a world that is contaminated by evil. This fact is self-evident. However, as we face those difficulties, believers must be able to cope with the difficulty. James is saying that we can.
James says that we fall among these trials. Like the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, we are often beset by these difficulties of life. It may be that the trials test our moral character, our mental attitude, our finances, our health, or some other aspect of our well being. The world is broken. Things are not always right; often they are not. The trials are various. The meaning is many-colored or variegated. The word suggests that the trials are of many different kinds and that there are many of them.
To get the full range of an organ or piano, one must play both the white keys and the black ones. With life, it is the same. In the full range of life there are dark days and dismal times. Not only will you face those kinds of days, you will also face a number of people in your ministry who are going through the same kinds of difficulties. The society in which we live leaves people unprepared to face those difficulties. America is success-oriented. Our heroes are those who have made it big somewhere. You will be dealing with people whose minds have been flooded with this propaganda and who do not know how to handle the trials of life when they come. What about those who cannot make it? James has something to say to these people. In the midst of the storms of life, we can rest in the joy of the Lord because we know that he is able to take care of us. He will end the storm, take us through it to safety, or take us to him. However he solves the problem, we can trust him to sustain us in it.
1:3 Knowing that the testing of your faith works endurance;
James says that we can face the trials of life with joy knowing that the testing of your faith works endurance. Knowing means to know by experience. We learn endurance as we experience the result of trials as a believer. James uses a word for "testing" that means to test for the purpose of proving. The proving comes only through experience. Endurance is sometimes translated "patience." However, it seems to me that patience is not a good translation. James referred to patience later in the letter, but the characteristic described here by hupomone is not passive. It is not a quality that sits all day with hands folded waiting for whatever happens to happen. It comes from two Greek words, hupo, meaning under, and meno, meaning abide, remain or stay. The word describes the ability to remain under a load, and in this context the idea is that one is able to stand hitched even when the circumstances are difficult. This word describes a positive, even aggressive, attitude. It is a conquering endurance.
The word is probably illustrated about as well as possible by a story from Dr. W.A. Criswell about a man who had two bird dogs in a pen. He went off for a few days and left them to the care of his wife. A bulldog came up to the pen one day, jumped in with the bird dogs, and the bird dogs proceeded to beat him up. The bulldog jumped out of the pen and licked his wounds, but he returned the next day. The same process was repeated. The third day he was back and the same thing happened. When the man returned his wife was telling him about it. He asked her if the bulldog had been seen anymore. She said, O, yeah, the dog kept coming back so often that when he got to the pen the bird dogs would tuck their tail and run in to their house because they did not want to have to beat him up again. That bull dog just kept coming back until he won. That is perseverence.
Trials test your faith with the result that faith is stronger. James could be using faith here as a description of the relationship enjoyed by the believer with God. That would be consistent with the context of the letter. However, he also could be referring to faithfulness. Faithfulness is the outcome of the relationship that believers have through Jesus. It is probable that many times when we translate pisteos as faith, we could better translate it as faithfulness. One does not take away from the other. Faith results in faithfulness. James is not through discussing faith. We will see more specifics later.
1:4 But let endurance have a perfect work (outcome), in order that you may be perfect and complete, in nothing lacking.
Again using the literary device that James often uses, he takes up a word already used and expands it. The result of continuing endurance is a perfect work. The word translated perfect is much-discussed and explained, even to the point of explaining it away. It is likely that this word came to James from the teaching of Jesus. He used it in the Sermon on the Mount in Mt 5:48. The word is often explained away as not meaning moral perfection. However, that conclusion probably comes more from the experience of men than from the intent of the writer. The word means perfect; there is no way around that. Because of the fact that the experience of men is that they have not attained perfection, they often try to make the word mean less. But we must remember that we are talking about a demand of God, who is perfect. Any standard less than perfection would not be consistent with him. We do not have to try to make the word mean mature, or complete in a sense less than perfection. All of these words speak of perfection. The perfect God has set his standard as perfection. He could do no less. If his standard were less than perfection, he would not be God.
One reason we want to change the meaning of the word is we know we have not attained perfection and we would like to attain that position so we could stop the struggle and rest. However, that is the point. The struggle does not stop until we get to Him. The fact that we have not attained perfection does not lessen the standard. Paul spoke of this in Philippians when he said that he was on the way or in the process of becoming complete. That is the goal for all of us. We must not let the absence of attainment lower the goal. If we are in a right relationship with God, we are on the way to perfection.
That seems to me what James is speaking of here. Let the testing that you encounter build up your endurance and move you toward the ultimate goal. He uses the imperative to make this a strong statement. Good moral character is important to James as it is to all Christians. He is strongly encouraging his readers to let their lives be moving toward the goal of spiritual maturity that will be consummated at the time we stand before God.
For those who have a right relationship with Christ, the trial is the starting place. It tests our faithfulness. When faith has been proved, we are able to stand under the load. When we reach the goal of perfect endurance, we also will be perfect. James then reinforces that concept with the synonym holokleroi. This word, meaning whole or complete, is a combination of holos, meaning whole, and kleros, meaning lot or portion. It describes the state of holding onto all that has been allotted to a man. It describes animals that were whole or complete and thus eligible for the sacrifice. It also could be used of something that has been broken but is now repaired. It was used medically of a bone that has been broken, but is now reset. The word describes things that have been put in working order. Davids says that the word stresses the incremental nature of the process of being made whole.
Believers begin with a relationship with Christ that brings about a change in their lives. Then the progression starts. Trials come to their faithfulness, but as they withstand the trials they are made stronger. In that strength believers are able to stand under the load that they have to bear. As that endurance continues and grows, the believer is progressing toward perfection. Each day and each experience brings a new element of growth and strength to build Christian character. However, we must remember that the emphasis is not on the deeds but on the generous grace that makes possible the relationship that produces the deeds. We are not working to get better; we are living in a relationship with Christ and He is making us better because He is making us more like Himself.
James says that we are to count it all joy when this process is taking place in our lives. As we face the variegated trials, we endure and move toward maturity. As a mature person we come to be in working order as we move toward the goal. We do face trials. In our relationship with Christ we can come to face them in perspective. It is more than a vague hope for the future. There is hope for the day because we come to understand that we are growing.
The stable man is one who sees life in perspective. He sees it from horizon to horizon. That is the way God sees. Such a man is able to see that he is on his way up the mountain peak, even when he is in the midst of the valley. All of us get to the point where we lose perspective. Burnout results. That is what burnout is: loss of focus (for example: Saul at Elah). We need to get a new perspective. It is ok to ask why? but it is not enough to ask why? We also must ask who?
II. Faith and Wisdom 1:5-8
1:5 If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God who gives to all generously and does not upbraid, and he will give to him.
James speaks of four things here:
1. Tells us what wisdom is
2. Tells us something about God
3. Tells us something about prayer
4. Tells us something about our attitude in prayer
James uses a first class conditional sentence here. The meaning of that in Greek syntax is that the speaker views the condition as fulfilled. It could be translated "since some of you lack wisdom," or "if any of you lack wisdom, and some of you do." James is affirming that there are some who lack wisdom.
Wisdom was an important word to the Jew. In the OT a whole section of books of the Bible are called the wisdom literature. Wisdom was the goal of men who were serious about their relationship with God. About forty pages of the TDNT are given to a discussion of wisdom.
Generally speaking, wisdom first referred to the individual who was skilled in some technical skill, but it later came to be used of an individual who had mental prowess. I think that James is using it here of one who has the right kind of knowledge, not just knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Wisdom is more than education. It is the ability to apply knowledge, to make the right choice when there are multiple choices. Jesus promised the disciples that they would receive the ability to see the meaning and significance of things and the ability to deal with the problems of life in the proper perspective. Davids says that wisdom, as James used it, refers to the Holy Spirit. I am not sure that we can make that direct a connection, but I do think that the two are closely related. We can also say the one who lives in wisdom lives in the will of God. His desire is the same as God’s; his goal is the same as God’s.
James says that those who lack wisdom should ask from God. Again he used the third person imperative. He indicates the foolishness of seeking this gift from any other source. It is available to those who ask. The trouble with our praying is not that God is unable to give but that we often may be unwilling to receive.
Believers can ask wisdom of God because he gives to all generously. There is a beautiful characterization of God here. He gives generously. God is a giving God because he is gracious. That is his character. That ought to be reassuring to us in our praying. He gives to all. We do not have to have some special spiritual qualifications that put us above or before other believers. Rich and poor, young and old can ask and receive from God. What James says here is consistent with what Jesus said in the SOM.
The basic meaning of the word “generous” is singleness of purpose. That could mean one of two things: either that the giver has a single-minded dedication to the other person, or that the giver has a single-minded preoccupation with the task. Either way, the characteristic is evident in God's dealing with us and it should be in our dealing with others. From the basic meaning the word came to speak of liberality. God is a generous giver because he is able to give in an unlimited fashion. He gives out of love. So can we.
In his giving, God does not upbraid. Upbraiding has three basic characteristics: it alludes to the gift again and again; it reminds the recipient that something has been given before; and it reminds the recipient that he really does not deserve to receive. As parents we are often guilty of this action. God is not like that. Every time we come to him to ask, he gives.
1:6 But let him ask in faith, not doubting, for the one who doubts is like the waves of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.
However, there is a condition to our asking: let him ask in faith. Faith is response, yielding, agreeing, giving in, total commitment. It is not a magic formula that we use to persuade God to do our will, but it is trusting God so that he conditions us to do his will. In Redneck it is letting God so turn us that we are perfectly in line with his will and purpose. It is total capitulation to God on a daily basis. Doubting is the opposite of faith. It literally means to judge two ways. The doubt is directed to God and is evidently caused by conflicting motives within the person. The word as used here can refer to a person who is at odds with himself because it is a present participle in the middle voice. The present tense indicates continuing action. What is described is a life that is characterized by doubt, wavering and unstable, as is seen in the illustration of the seashore. The picture is of the sea at odds with itself, rolling up and rolling back, rather than moving forward on a set course like a river.
1:7 Do not let that man expect that he will receive anything from the Lord.
James presents the contrast here, spelled out further in verse eight, between the man whose life is characterized by hupomone as over against the man whose life is characterized by instability. The reason that such a man cannot expect to receive anything from the Lord is not that God is unable to give, but that the man is unwilling to receive.
1:8 A man double minded, unstable in all his ways.
Double minded is literally two-souled. This word is used only here in the NT and is not found in Greek outside the NT before this time. It is likely that James coined the word, but its background is clear in Jewish theology. The word describes one with two minds who can't make a decision about which way he wants to go. When believers are in such a state, their spiritual growth is hindered because they have no obvious direction or goal in their lives and because they are so preoccupied with the decision rather than the One who determines the direction.
Believers are expected by God to relate to him with an undivided heart. When they are distracted by sin, whether the sin is some moral lapse or a bad attitude, they are unable to concentrate on their relationship to God. That lack of focus results in instability.
Unstable (literally, “not standing down”) describes the man with a double purpose. It is the opposite of the singleness of purpose that Jesus talked about in the SOM and that James has described for the believer. Specifically, James is describing the man whose heart is not single-mindedly trusting in God and who is therefore disloyal to God. Instead of being like a trusting child related to God, the man is hypocritical and unstable. There should be no surprise that such a man does not receive anything from God.
III. Faith and Social Status 1:9-11
Both poverty and riches bring temptations. When a man is in either position, there is the inclination to trust in something other than God. The extremely poor man faces the temptation to think less of himself than he ought to think, or he faces the temptation to feel that the world owes him a living so he goes out and takes what he wants or he gets greedy for riches. Or he is so focused on what he does not have he cannot see what he does have. He lives an “if only” life. On the other hand, the man with riches faces the temptation to trust more in his riches and what they can buy instead of trusting solely in God. Neither wealth nor poverty is wrong in itself, but the man in either position faces increased temptation. The only way for a poor man or a rich man to keep in balance is to keep his focus on God rather than on the things of the world.
In my opinion, commentators go to great lengths to over-explain this brief passage. It is clear that James does deal with the problem of the oppression of the poor by the rich in a later passage, but it seems to me that oppression is not the problem James deals with here. He is rather dealing with a basic problem faced by both poor and rich: Where is your focus? What is most important to you? James is concerned here with the relationship of men to God in Christ. Whatever a man's social position may be, it is meaningless in comparison to the man's relationship to Christ.
1:9 But let him boast, the lowly brother, in his lifting up.
Let him boast is at the first of the sentence for emphasis. The word is used only by James and Paul in the NT. It is a neutral word that can be used in both a good and bad sense. Here it is clear that James uses it in a good sense because the boasting is not in what one has or can do but is in what God has done for him. It means to glory, boast, rejoice, exult, be very happy, or take comfort in. It is a strong word that indicates that the man is totally relying on something that he knows outweighs anything else in making his position what it is.
The lowly brother makes two things clear. One, the man is a Christian in the estimation of James. He is referring to those within the church who have lowly positions, probably because of their economic situation or social position. Humility is associated with this word, and that made it a despised characteristic to those in the Greek culture. A woman or a servant might be described as lowly and humble, but never a man. It seems clear that James used the term here to refer to men whose social position was determined by their possessions because he used it in opposition to the rich in verse ten.
The object of the boasting of the poor man is his lifting up. The poor man may be on the bottom of the social ladder, but in Christ he is exalted. The common ground for the boasting of both the rich man and the poor man is the faith relationship. That relationship is not determined by the position in society but by the position in Christ. Like Paul gloried in the cross, the poor man can boast in what God has done for him through the death of Christ. This is the real bottom line.
It seems to me that those who point to the eschatalogical reference here are not telling the whole story. It is certainly true that God will work all things out according to his true standards in the consummation. However, the boasting that all men can do in Christ transcends the hope that things will be all right one day. The quality of life that God has given to us in Christ can be enjoyed and gloried in today. The man with spiritual wisdom that comes only from God can understand that the economic situation is not the determination of a man's position. The relationship of a man to Christ and the resultant quality of life is more important than riches or social position. There can be joy in life in the midst of poverty. The determining factor is not economics.
1:10 And the rich man in his being made lowly because as the flowering grass, he will pass away.
In spite of the comments to the contrary, it seems to me that James is not dealing with the problem of the rich oppressing the poor here. He is dealing with the reason a man can boast. For him there is only one reason: the relationship a man has in Christ. There were certainly rich men in the early church. The question for James and other NT writers is not whether a man has riches but how he relates to them. I do not see why those who comment on the letter want to deal with the question of whether the man spoken of here is a Christian. The parallelism here seems to be clear. The words boast and brother in verse nine apply to both men. James is speaking of two kinds of Christian men, the rich and the poor. The reason for boasting for them is the same. There must have been in James' day men just like there are today who think that the amount a man has indicates his real worth. For the Jews, prosperity was a sign of favor from God. We also often judge a man's worth by the size of his estate. God does not use the same standard.
His being made lowly translates the same word used of the poor man in verse nine. James does not mean that Christ makes him poor but that Christ puts him in the same relationship with himself as the poor man. There is equality before him. As Jesus spoke of the faith of little children he was saying that those who come to him have that characteristic. Here James speaks similarly in describing the situation of a man who is in a right relationship with Christ. That relationship is not determined by his social or economic position. The man of low economic position is exalted in Christ. The man of high economic position is on the same level.
As the flowering grass introduces a comparison of the man and his possessions to the short-lived plant life of Palestine. The result of the plant-life and of all living things, like the rich man, is that the end will come for it. This is a vivid picture that James introduces and discusses further in verse eleven. The point is that riches are transitory. It may be that pareleusetai refers to the riches of the man. The meaning would be the same, but the reference to the transitory nature of the riches of a man would fit the context more. While the poor man is to boast in his high position in Christ, the rich man is to boast in the same thing. The riches of a man do not give him a high position because of the temporary nature of riches.
1:11 For the sun rises with the heat and withers the flower and its blossom falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed. Thus also the rich man in his ways will fade away.
James continues his description of the outcome of the possessions of a man with this vivid picture of what happens to a fragile flower. The flower is beautiful, but the life of the flower is short because of the transitory nature of the life of physical things. When the heat of the sun comes on it, the beauty and the life of the flower is gone. The lesson is clear. A man may have wealth and social standing, but the wealth and social standing will not last. Neither will the man. Death comes to all, rich and poor, but the thing that gives a man worth is his relationship to God. Otherwise he is no more than the animals in the scheme of nature. He is born. He lives. He dies and is gone. That is true of all material things.
Note that James says that the rich man will fade away in his ways. The picture is that the man who is depending on his riches will be disappointed because as he goes about the business of enjoying the wealth, he will come to the experience of death and the wealth will be able to do him no good. As long as a man lives he may be able to enjoy the benefits of possessions. When he dies all his wealth can do for him is to buy him an expensive funeral.
I noted on television not long ago that another man was buried in his car. This time it was a Corvette. (I even heard of a woman in New England who wanted to be buried in her Corvair.) While such an action may make for unusual interest and expensive funerals, the position of the man in the car is not changed from what it would be if he had never owned a Corvette. The same is true for a man who would be buried with his money. You still can't take it with you.
IV. Faith and Temptation 1:12-15
1:12 Blessed is the man who endures in trial because when he has been proved he will receive the crown of life which he has promised to those who love him.
Commentators disagree whether this verse is a part of James' discussion of the believer's relationship to temptation to evil discussed in 13-16 or is a separate teaching. The word used in both instances is the same, peirasmos, a neutral word that can mean trial that leads to approval or temptation to evil. It seems to me that there is a difference in the use of the words in verse twelve and in verse thirteen. James has already discussed trials that lead to approval; he follows in thirteen with a discussion of the temptations to evil. It may be that he is repeating in verse twelve the principle that the man who endures under trials is blessed to introduce his teaching on temptation to evil.
Blessed is the man is the same language that Jesus used in the beatitudes. It was a rather common Jewish expression to describe those who enjoy a good state as a result of a right relationship with God. Endures is hupomone, standing under the load. One would not be encouraged to endure temptation to evil, but to resist temptation, as James urges later.
He will receive the crown of life does seem to have some eschatalogical emphasis, but we should remember that such promises as these do not exclude the present life because eternal life is a present reality as well as a promised consummation. The construction here indicates that the crown is life. James uses an appositive genitive which is epexegetic. Life describes the crown, that is fullness of life. When one withstands the trials of life, he really comes to know what real life is all about. James is thinking not only about someone who is ready to die but who is ready to live. Many times in our preaching we miss this point. We help people get ready to die without helping them get ready to live.
The crown of life is the stephanos, the green laurel wreath given to the winners of athletic contests and sometimes to conquering generals as they came home victorious from war. It was also sometimes given to one who had proven faithful in municipal service.
As Adamson has said, when athletes strive in the games, only one can be victorious. In Christianity there is no reason why all cannot be victorious. We are not competing against each other but against the outside forces that would try us and against the devil who would try to defeat us.
He clearly refers to God or to Jesus. Either reference would say the same thing. Some MSS add "Lord" here, but it is not in the Greek text. However, clearly the promise was made by God and is give to us by him through Jesus.
Those who love him is reminiscent of the primary commandment of Jesus. Note that James did not say the crown is promised to those who endure temptation. However, those who love him and those who endure temptation are the same. Enduring is one of the ways we demonstrate our love for Jesus. The right relationship gives the right perspective.
George Stulac concludes this section in his commentary in this way:
James the Just, with his deep moral earnestness, wants to help suffering Christians find the strength to make tough moral choices. He therefore calls us to face the issue of worth. Persevering is worth doing, because the crown of life is worth more than avoiding the trial. James calls for courageous applications of this principle. Giving up on a difficult ministry, retaliating against people who are mistreating you, withdrawing from active participation in worship and fellowship, compromising moral standards, interrupting your life of obedience, turning away from a walk of fellowship with the Lord--all these responses to adversity assume that escaping the trial is of more value than gaining the crown of life. The Christian is called to place greater value on the goal of becoming mature and complete in Christ. With such applications, the Christian life is taken out of the realm of sentimentality and placed in the realm of significant moral choice.
When a Christian’s spouse is unfaithful and abandons the marriage, is Christ still worth obeying? When a Christian’s financial security is threatened or wrecked, is Christ still worth trusting? When a Christian’s physical health is crippled, is Christ still worth adoring? When a Christian’s family member is killed, is Christ still worth serving? When a Christian’s actions are misunderstood or slandered, is Christ still worth devotion? Even if the Christian loses everything else, is Christ still worth honoring, and is the crown of life still worth the perseverance in faith? The answer is decisively yes!
1:13 Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God;" for God is not tempted of evil, and he, himself, tempts no one.
Where does temptation come from? You and I are of the mind set of Aristotle in things like this. We like to deal with cause and effect. We like for everything to be explained neatly and for everything to be taken to its logical conclusion. A Greek writer could have never written in the first chapter of Genesis, "In the beginning God created the earth." First, he would have had to postulate the existence of God and prove that God existed. Then he would have had to postulate and prove that God could create before he could say, “In the beginning...."
However, all things cannot be explained neatly. James is not discussing the question of the existence of evil nor is he trying to prove its existence. He assumes that evil exists. He also assumes that temptation is a problem for man, even for believers. The thing that James affirms is that God is neither tempted by evil nor does he tempt any man. Neither would James adopt the popular attitude that "the devil made me do it."
In OT times, everything was attributed to God. That is understandable in a sense because God is omnipotent and therefore all things happen under his ultimate control. However, the sovereign God chose of his own accord to give man a choice. The decision to give man a choice carries with it the potential for a wrong choice. Only a sovereign God could give the choice. Man is responsible to make the right choice or suffer the consequences of his choice.
Well, we say, God did tempt Abraham. Not so in the sense that James is speaking here. God tested the faith of Abraham. We may not understand all of the details of that incident in Abraham's life when he was about to sacrifice his son, but we can understand that the purpose of it was to test Abraham's dependence on God. He was tried and proven in the same sense that James speaks of in 1:2f and in 1:12.
James reflects a Christian development in the Jewish theology of evil. He is affirming that all things are not to be blamed on God. Man is responsible for his own decisions made in the freedom that God has given.
God is not tempted by evil is a strong affirmation. The word referring to God as not being tempted is not found anywhere else in the NT nor is it found in Greek writing before James. It is likely that James coined the word. Again, James reflects a development of Jewish theology because the OT teaching is very clear that God is not tempted to do wrong. He transcends evil and is not overcome by it.
1:14 But each one is tempted by his own desires, being lured away and being caught.
Again, where does temptation come from? Each one is tempted by his own desires. The word desires is another neutral word. In the good sense it can mean good and natural desires or wishes. In the bad sense it means lusts. The context must determine the flavor of the meaning. When Jesus said to his disciples, "With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you," he used this same word. The context here clearly makes the meaning lusts. Note that James emphatically says that the blame for the lust is on the individual. It is his own (idias).
Lured away and caught are metaphors used in the world of hunting and fishing. Both metaphors mean about the same thing, but I have chosen to translate them as "lured away and caught" because I think that the translation captures the progression that James is making here. When one is fishing, he throws out the lure in the general area of the fish. The fish is swimming along on a straight course until he catches a glimpse of the lure. That causes his attention to be diverted to the lure and he sometimes alters his direction to go after the lure. Once he has hit the lure, he has been caught.
The same picture can be seen in primitive hunting. A box trap is set up with a stick holding it open. When the animal sees or otherwise senses the bait, it diverts its direction and goes after the bait. When it is under the box, the hunter pulls the string on the stick and the animal is caught. We can easily translate that picture to the lure of some sin and our response to it.
One of the things made clear in the writing of Paul and John, among other NT writers, is that we must blame our fall into sin only on ourselves. We do try to blame others and that has been the history of mankind since the Garden of Eden. Eve blamed the serpent and Adam blamed Eve. But each man is responsible. We cannot blame God, Adam, society, or even the devil. The devil has placed the desire for evil there, as James later reflects, but James also tells us that the devil does not have authority over believers. He is the deceiver and his goal is to deceive us into thinking that we have no power to resist him. That is a lie. When I give in to sin, I must take the responsibility for it.
1:15 Then lust, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown gives birth to death.
James uses two more metaphors, this time from birth and growing up. The first, conceived, marks the beginning of sin as a result of the evil desire in the man. Once conception has taken place, birth is inevitable unless the fetus is aborted. Sin becomes a reality and then begins to grow. The second, full grown, marks the completion or maturity of the sin.
The result of sin full grown brings forth death. It is an ironic statement that James makes. Literally, he says that sin gives birth to death. The word for "gives birth" is a different word than that used by James when he said desire gives birth to sin, but it is a synonym.
The outcome of desire plus sin is death. We must be careful in trying to determine which sin leads to which death, but we can say with certainty that sin leads to death. James is not trying to get us to become judges about the relationship of a particular sin to death, but he is giving us a message that is consistent with the rest of the Bible from the time of the Garden of Eden on. Sometimes sin leads to physical death. Always sin leads to spiritual death. For the Christian that does not mean the loss of salvation, but it does have dire consequences. The life of a believer who sins becomes useless as an influence for Christ. The life controlled by self desire rejects God's leadership and fellowship. The result is separation in the fellowship that can only be restored by the forgiveness made available by a merciful God.
It is interesting to note the contrast that James has presented in this chapter as he has talked about the two uses of the word pierasmos. The man who faces trials and endures receives the crown of life. The man who faces temptation and yields faces death.
V. Faith and God's Graciousness 1:16-18
1:16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.
Commentators are not agreed on whether verse sixteen goes with 12-15 as a conclusion of the argument or with 17-19 as an introduction of the next section. There would really be no difference if one puts it with the earlier or the latter. If this verse goes with the one preceding, it would be a decisive conclusion to the argument that desire--sin--death is the result of deceit, both the deceit by Satan and self-deceit. It is also a warning that when believers make a decision about temptation they should make the right one. If the verse goes with 17-19 it would be a convincing introduction to something that James felt strongly and wanted to emphasize.
However, in either case the verse does two things. It is a warning against deception and an expression of the deep feelings that James has for the readers.
1:17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.
James turns from the variableness of men caused by trials of life and temptations that come, to speak of God who is not changing. He is on a steady course, not affected by the variableness of men or any of his creation. From this steady position, the gracious God is able to give good and perfect gifts to men. The use of pasa and pan indicates that all of the gifts that God gives to men are under consideration here. However, James does give a specific example in verse eighteen.
The main thing that James is trying to get across is that God gives good gifts to his children. Sometimes it is difficult for us to understand that the gifts that God gives to us are good, but we must see them from the perspective of God's ability to see the end effect. James is not reverting to the theology that holds that all gifts come from God. He has already indicated that man is responsible for his wrong choices. Now he speaks of the contrast to that in the giving of good things. God knows what is good for us and he is able and willing to give us what is good for us.
These gifts come from above. James clearly refers to God as the giver. He strengthens that by calling him the Father of Lights. This circumlocution for God's name is not unexpected from a Jewish Christian writer. The reference to God as the creator of the lights of heaven is clear. The inference we can make from James' words is that God who created the universe, including man, is able to give good things to his children.
James further describes God as one in whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. While the commentators argue about the relationship of these words to astronomy, it seems to me that the emphasis is on the unchangeableness of God. There are many signs of change in nature, not the least of which is shadows caused by the movement of the sun. Now, while James likely was not interested in the theories of Copernicus or Galileo, he and others of his age could certainly notice that the shadows were not the same in the morning as in the afternoon. They could also notice the differing positions of the stars in the heavens at night. The contrast seems to me to be in God's creation, including men, there is changing; in God such change does not exist. From that steadfastness God is able to help us with trials and temptations.
1:18 Exercising his will he brought us forth by the word of truth in order that we might be the first fruit among all his creation.
Exercising his will is a strong statement emphasizing the determined action of God. By that deliberate action he brought us forth. James uses apokeuo here where we might expect gennao since the reference is to God's role in our being. It should not be surprising, however, that James chose to use this word. It is the same word that he used in verse fifteen in describing the chain of desire--sin--death. He is showing a strong contrast in the action of man and the action of God. "Sin produces death, but God produces life."
The instrument of bringing us forth is the word of truth. This reference could be to the Gospel or to Jesus as the agent of creation. We have no indication that James used logos to refer to Jesus as the incarnate word as John did, but it is possible that he is doing that here. He may also be using "word" in the same sense that is used in Gen 1:1 or that he is referring to the Gospel as the word of truth.
The idea of first fruit is an interesting one. The first born of everything belonged to God. It must be either sacrificed or redeemed. The first fruits were also God's. The background is from Exodus where the Israelites were reminded that they were redeemed from Egypt at the cost of the first born of the Egyptians. The foreground was more important. It was the fact that spiritual redemption would come from the sacrifice of God's own first born on the cross. James was saying that God brought us forth that we might belong to him. Because we belong to him we owe him faithfulness and service.
To what does brought us forth and first fruit refer? Physical existence or spiritual life? Probably both. James very well may have been looking at creation in the same way Paul spoke of it in Rom 8. Believers have been given existence through the creative act of God. They have been reborn through the atoning work of God in Christ on the cross. The rebirth of that part of God's creation, man, has not occurred in any other part of the creation. That is why Paul would say that the whole creation is groaning and travailing in pain now awaiting the redemption that is to come. Believers are the first fruit. The total redemption of the rest of creation will follow.
VI. Faith and Christian Character 1:19-27
James now turns to discuss how believers can get along with God and with each other. We face trials, but God is able to help us. We face temptations and we alone are to blame if we yield to them. God gives us good gifts, including life and salvation. In that state as believers, we must live in a right relationship to God. The living we do in that relationship is not how we are saved, but it is a demonstration of the fact that we are saved.
1:19 Listen, my beloved brothers, but let every man be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.
James begins with an emphatic call for the reader's attention. It could be translated, "Know this!" or "Listen to me, hear this!" It is an attention getter. He writes to beloved brethren, that is, to believers within the fellowship of the church.
His first command is that we be quick to hear. This could refer to a readiness to hear what men have to say or to a readiness to hear God speak to us. It is really an attitude that reflects our action in response to both. We must pay careful attention to God for his leadership through devotional study that includes listening. We must also pay attention to what men are saying to know what their needs are and how we can minister to them.
Slow to speak is not speaking slow. It is again an attitude that reflects our reaction to what we hear. It applies to what God says to us as well as to what men say. We are to give thought to what we hear and to what we are going to say in return. The biggest temptation sometimes is to grab the telephone or to respond in person based on our first impression. Our first impression is often wrong. We need to think through the consequences of what we are about to say. (Dr. Robbins: "We seldom regret our silence.") In the parable of the two sons that Jesus told, one said quickly that he would go and did not. The other said quickly that he would not go and did. Both were wrong in their quick responses although the latter son was right in his reconsideration and action. We would all be better off if we would follow the practical command of James and consider carefully what we are about to say and the consequences of it for us and for others.
Slow to anger does not say never be angry but it does say that sin is closely related to anger. Some of the most embarrassing times that I have had have resulted from an angry retort when I did not really understand the situation. I was just speaking from my anger. The word "temper" comes from the blacksmith's shop. When a piece of metal "loses its temper" it becomes useless. The same is true for a person. Paul said in Eph 4:26, "Be angry and do not sin." There is a righteous anger, but righteous anger in the estimation of most of us is usually mine. In reality, when anger is related to self, it is seldom righteous. Righteous anger is related to God and his purpose. We need to be sure that our "righteous anger" is not selfish anger.
1:20 For the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.
Righteousness of God is what God plans, intends, and does for us and in us. It is seen in his will for our lives. Salvation, growth, getting along with others, ministry, a right relationship with God in which he is able to work to make us more like Jesus so that we can be rightly related to others, that is what God's righteousness is as it relates to us as believers.
Does not work means that the dual relationship is hindered. When we lose control we are not able to hear him. We are not able to serve him or witness for him. Don't let your ministry be a ministry from anger. We need to discipline our anger to hear God speak so that we can serve him and his people.
Is God in a church split? Never! God is able to use even the evil of men for his good, but he does not promote evil or the anger that produces it.
1:21 Therefore, putting away all filthiness from you and that which abounds of wickedness, receive with gentleness the implanted word which is able to save your souls.
Hearing God speak to us leads to response on our part. The therefore here indicates that the result of hearing is that we take action. Putting away all filthiness refers to taking off something like removing a garment. That which is to be removed from us is all kinds of things that are illegal and immoral. The word describes dirt, filth, and especially here "moral shabbiness." As if that were not enough description of the characteristics that believers are to avoid, James goes on to say that we are to remove all that abounds of wickedness. Some translators use "remains" here, but the word means to abound. It is like coco grass in the garden. It is there in abundance. The inference we can make here is that repentance is called for.
Gentleness is sometimes translated "meekness." Meek in the sense of this word is not weak. It would be more like "teachable." The word was used for the horse that had been properly broken or for some other domesticated animal. It describes one whose spirit and actions have been channeled in a useful direction. The word was important to Jesus. It described him and it made up an important part of his teaching to his disciples.
Receive indicates a response on the part of the believer. It describes an act of the will, and here it denotes a sense of urgency. James' words remind us of the parable Jesus told of the man who had seven devils cast out. Because he did nothing, the demons returned and brought others with them. James is telling us that it is not enough to be free of the negative; we must also be filled with the positive.
The implanted word is a word that is able to save. It can be personalized as Jesus or it can be seen as the Gospel that is communicated about Jesus. Either way the meaning would be the same. The saving begins at the new birth and continues until the consummation. Salvation comes by the word in the narrow sense of the new birth. It also comes by the word in the sense of the saving of the life of a believer for usefulness in the Kingdom through the continual speaking of God to us and our repeated obedience. That is how we become useful. That is how we grow to be more like Christ. “For if enemies being we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, much more being reconciled, we shall be saved in his life. ( Rom. 5:8)
1:22 Become doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
We know what sin is and what causes it--our own lust. We know what God has done for us in giving us new spiritual life in Christ. We know that he has also given us his word to help us deal with temptation and life. We know he is always giving proper direction to us through his word to us. Now, James gives us further advice about how to move ahead in living out the characteristics of the Christian life.
Hearing is important, but it is only a beginning. We can spend a great deal of time studying the Bible, but it becomes meaningless if we do not allow the Spirit to apply it in our lives. James may here be referring to the casual reading or hearing of the word of God. He also may be referring to the casual attitude of worship that is held within the believer. The believer may say, "I have read much today and I understand it." However, if the reading does not change the believer, it is meaningless. Not only is it meaningless, the believer is deceived by himself, thinking that he has really accomplished something. The word used for deceiving here means to defraud. The same principle can be applied to worship, also.
Doing is the acting out of the responses to what we hear. Become doers suggests progress. James illustrated what he means in 1:23-25.
1:23-25 Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, this one is like a man who beholds his natural face in a mirror. For having looked at himself and having gone away, he forgets what it was like. But the one looking into the perfect law of freedom and remaining by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but a doer of work, this one is blessed in his doing.
The man who is a hearer of the word and not a doer is like a man who looks intently in a mirror but gets no benefit from it. The comparison James makes is as follows. The man who looks is like the man who hears or reads the word. The looker observes as the hearer does, and is likely satisfied. He feels good about what he sees. Then he goes away and forgets what he looked like. He is not changes in character -> attitude -> action. The use of the mirror did him no good.
The man who hears and does the word is like a man who looks intently at the perfect law of freedom. He hears, looks intently into it, abides by it, and is changed by it. The point is that the hearer who responds takes action while the one who hears only does not.
Perfect law of freedom indicates two key ideas. The law is perfect because it reflects God's nature and purpose. He is perfect, so we would expect his law to be perfect also. We seek to attain the perfection reflected in his perfect law because of what he is and our relationship to him. The law is freedom because God who acts in freedom is the author of freedom and he sets his children at liberty, but it is obvious that James is not treating the law from the perspective of a literalist. The concepts of law and freedom seem contrary at first. When we realize that God is the author of freedom we should not be surprised that he sets us free in our relationship with him. True freedom is the ability to express what we truly are. We are free when we hear and respond to God and his purpose for us. This is not legalism but freedom in Christ to live up to the potential he has given to us.
1:26-27 If anyone seems to be religious, does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is vain. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit the orphans and widows in their tribulation and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
Religion is what man does in an effort to find and please God. It is an outward expression. It is defined as an “outward practice of ceremonies in honor of a god.” It often refers to cultic worship. It is a neutral word, but it so easily becomes a hindrance to the relationship that God wants us to have with him. Because it is easier for us to deal with things when we can control and enumerate them, we try to work out systems of religion to please God. That is why we correlate faithfulness with church attendance, tithing, etc. It may be that our efforts have pure motives to begin with, but it is easy for us to get caught up in the machinery of the effort and lose sight of the goal. That is the kind of situation that James describes here.
The first example is a negative one: the control of the tongue. James will deal with the issue of tongue control more in chapter three and we will deal with the problem at that point. What needs to be said here is that God wants us to live out in our outward experience what is on the inside because of our relationship with him.
An uncontrolled tongue is an outward sign of inward vanity and shabbiness of relationship. The problem is self-deception that comes from a false relationship. When we live in a right relationship we will have a tongues harnessed by the relationship. That is the meaning of the imagery of the bridle in the horse’s mouth. The result is that the believer in a right relationship knows when to keep silent, when to talk, and what to say when he speaks.
The word for pure religion refers to ceremonial cleanness. The word translated undefiled refers to moral cleanness. So James used ceremonial cleanness and moral cleanness to describe what our outward expression of religion ought to be. We cannot be acceptable outwardly if we are not clean inwardly. Right response requires right relationship.
The word translated to visit means more than just to drop by the orphanage and the widow's home to say hello. The word means to look after or give care to. This is the proper outer expression of religion. The picture is that the generous grace of God makes available the word to us. From the word we receive wisdom to make the right choice to be selfless rather than selfish. From that choice we live in a right relationship with God in Christ. The result is that we agree to love others as Christ loves through us and we learn how to live in purity. That is what real, undefiled religion is.
See A. T. Robertson, 1-27, for a detailed treatment of the early life and the ministry of James.
Moo, Pillar, 50.
See John 13:1 for an example.
Motyer in loc.
See Davids, 76, and Hiebert, 90.
See Hiebert for a review of the opinions, 91.
See Davids, 90.
Motyer, in loc.
Motyer, in loc.
Moo, Pillar, 96.
See Richardson, 98-103 for an excellent discussion of this section.
VII. FAITH AND PARTIALITY 2:1-13
James has explained what it means to have a right relationship with God. Even though some try to make James' theology of faith different from other NT writers, his theology of faith has a strong emphasis on the fact that God has graciously provided for man’s redemption and has made the word of redemption available. Man enters into a right relationship with God through Christ by receiving the word made available. That relationship results in righteous behavior as man seeks the same thing God seeks and as God works through man to make him more like Christ. Whenever Paul was dealing with people who had a tendency to legalism, he emphasized that works do not justify. James deals with people who were not living out their faith by demonstrating the good works that are the normal outgrowth of faith. It is only the emphasis that is different. In chapter 2 James deals with some practical aspects of the living out of faith by the believer. James makes clear that partiality is inconsistent with faith. As the believer walks in a faith relationship with God in Christ, he desires the same thing God desires. That desire leaves no room for decisions to be made about people based on outward appearances. The sin addressed here is not the sin of the rich. James deals with that later. The sin addressed here is the sin of partiality shown by believers, rich or poor.
Stulac divides his treatment of this section into two sections: favoritism contradicts faith and favoritism breaks the law that people of faith follow. His discussion clearly demonstrates that James is concerned about faith here.
2:1 My brothers, stop holding the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ in partiality.
My brothers is used by James in his letter fourteen times as a form of direct address. It is a normal way of addressing fellow-Christians.
Stop holding the faith could be a question, "Do you hold your faith?" It is more likely another of James' uses of the imperative. Apparently some of the partiality that James mentions was being practiced within the fellowship of believers, and he gives a strong command to stop it. The me used here with the imperative mood indicates a strong negative prohibition. They were to stop doing something that they were currently doing.
Faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ puts the ownership or the source of the faith in Jesus, most likely the source. James refers to the saving faith in Jesus that puts believers in a right relationship with him. This expression is a common one in the NT that designates Jesus as the object of the faith that saves as well as the provider of that faith..
The syntax of this verse is difficult, and it has caused many different opinions about the proper way to translate the verse. James has included an often-used title for Jesus, our Lord Jesus Christ, and that is not difficult to handle. However, he adds of the glory and that causes the syntactical problem. The string of five genitives has been translated in several ways, including making the descriptive adjective of the glory modify Lord, Jesus Christ, or the entire phrase. It has also been translated as an appositive, making the translation "our Lord Jesus Christ, the glory."
It seems to me that the string of genitives would call on us to use the descriptive adjective to modify the entire phrase. I think that the best translation would be as I have done it here, our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.
Glorious is another reference to the schechinah glory of God. It refers to the revealed presence of God, which reveals his character, and it has its background in the OT wilderness experience when the pillar of fire and the cloud accompanied the people. The significance of the use of the word to describe Jesus is that James is indicating that he is the revealed presence of God. Jesus is God in the presence of men. This reference speaks of equality, and it adds to the strength of James admonition here.
Why does James tie the admonition against partiality to Jesus? Probably because of the insistence by Jesus and his strong example that his followers are not to give special regard to men on the basis of their outward appearance. Believers, who have the saving faith that is in Christ, should follow the example of Jesus in regarding other people on the basis of who they are rather than what they appear to be on the outside.
In partiality is literally to receive the face. It means to look at an outward appearance for the purpose of making judgement. It was a common fault of oriental judges and was strictly forbidden. The Gospels remind us that Jesus looked on the hearts of men. He knew their hearts. We are not able to know the hearts of men like Jesus did, but our responsibility is to seek to avoid allowing the outward appearance of men overcome their testimony or their need. James has already said that all men stand on equal ground before the Lord. We must keep that in mind. This word from James is a serious one for the church today. The temptation is strong to judge people based on outward appearance, whether the person is obviously rich or obviously not like us in some other way. Our human tendency is to come to a conclusion, usually as quickly as possible, and usually based on whatever little information we have.
2:2-4 For if a man enters into your synagogue wearing gold rings on his finger and in fine clothes, and also a poor man in filthy clothes, and you look upon the one wearing the fine clothes and you say, "You sit here in a good seat," and to the poor man you say, "You stand there," or "You sit under my footstool," are you not partial in yourselves and are become judges of evil thinking?
The two men mentioned in verse two are likely strangers. James is not commenting on whether they are Christians. That issue is moot. Neither is James saying whether the meeting is a worship service or some other kind of meeting by the church. That point makes no difference. The word here is directed to the church in whatever meeting it finds itself or whatever the situation may be otherwise. The point dealt with here is the character of the believers and the reaction of the believers to people as they come to visit their congregation.
One of the men is obviously rich. He is, literally, gold-fingered and dressed in fine clothes. The word that is translated gold rings indicates that the man has not one ring, but many. His fine clothes are clothes that would attract the attention of others because of their opulence. He has on his Brooks Brothers suit. The same word is used here by James that Luke used to describe the clothes that the soldiers put on Jesus in Luke 23:11 and the fine clothes worn by Herod Agrippa in Acts 10:30.
The other man is obviously poor and very poorly kept. He has on his work clothes and they are shabby and even dirty. The obvious contrast in the two men sets up the illustration of judgement based on the outward appearance of the men.
James indicates that the direction given to the two men about where to sit was given by a spokesman for the congregation, but the attitude clearly represents that of the congregation as a whole. The second person plural used in verse three to describe the looking of the congregation on the men makes it clear that the attitude is general. In this context it is a look of admiration when they see the rich man and a quite different look when the poor man comes in. The contrast is clear..
The address to both men is emphatic with the inclusion in the text of the second personal pronoun. The rich man is given direction to the seat of honor based on his outward appearance. The poor man is obviously not very important, so he is given a choice to stand over there or sit under my footstool. Either choice is obviously a place of little honor. Under my footstool is not clear as to exactly what the seat is, but it is clear that the man is told to sit on the floor somewhere.
The question in verse four is literally, Have you not judged two ways in yourselves and have you not become judges of evil thinking (or understanding)? Judged two ways reminds us of James' words in chapter one when he spoke of the instability of the man whose faith is not being lived out properly. It is the word used in 1:6 to describe the man who doubts and probably refers here also to their faith. It speaks of the divided nature of the unstable man who is not focused on God and his word.
Judges of evil thinking means that the members of the congregation have set themselves up as judges and their judgement is based on less than the righteousness of God. The basis for judgement is what the persons can see, and they cannot see well enough to judge. This action in itself is wrong because men have no right to judge in such matters for two reasons. In the first place they do not have enough knowledge of situations to make a judgement. In the second place they do not have enough wisdom to make a proper decision even if they think that they have sufficient knowledge. Judging is God's job. We would be better off if we left it to him.
Even if we had the ability to be a judge we would not be able to make an accurate judgement based on outward appearance. The motives of the members of the congregation that James mentioned were colored by the appearance of the men. That is evil, whatever the circumstances are. Do we have to make decisions about people? Yes, sometimes. But remember that the character of the individual determines the manner of decision-making.
2:5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen the poor of the world to be rich in faith and inheritors of the kingdom which he promised to those who love him?
In verses five through seven James makes application of the truth of his illustration to the readers' lives. James is not saying that all of the poor are good and all of the rich are evil. Neither is he saying that God only chooses the poor. Remember Baranbas, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Cornelius, etc. What James is saying is that in a general sense God has chosen the poor and humble and those considered by the world to be worthless and through his mercy has made them his children because he looks on the heart and not on the outside. James is reminding the church that believers sometimes do not react to people like God does. If we are walking in faith in a relationship with Christ, the desire of our heart ought to be the same as the desire of Christ. We know how God feels about the poor. Our feelings ought to be the same, and we ought to demonstrate our feelings in the context of our relationship with Jesus so that we do not condemn or otherwise mistreat a person based on outward appearance.
If the congregation dishonors the poor man it means that the people are treating them contrary to the way God treats them. That is a dangerous situation. Their action toward the poor man was at the least a poor witness toward him. James is not saying that we only carry the Gospel to the poor, but we must be careful not to neglect the poor in our witness. We must remember that when we mistreat the poor we are mistreating Jesus (Mt 25).
Note that the poor are chosen by God to be rich in faith. This statement is consistent with James' earlier teaching that the real worth of a man is not determined by his possessions but by his relationship to God in Christ.
The poor are also inheritors of the kingdom. The kingdom is mentioned only here in James. It is another of those concepts that James probably took directly from the teaching of Jesus, especially in the SOM. The meaning of the kingdom as Jesus used it is the rule of Christ in the hearts of those who have faith in him. James probably uses it in the same sense here. An inheritance is given and not earned. Even a rich man cannot buy an inheritance.
Note also that James once again brings us back to the basics when he says that the promise of riches and inheritance is to those who love him. It is not a man's social or economic position that gives him the relationship to God. God gives the relationship to those who respond in faith. Love is the evidence of that faith.
2:6 But you dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, and they themselves who drag you into court? Do not they themselves blaspheme the good name by which you have been called?
James has spoken of the temptations of the rich. In the early church, as well as the church throughout history, it is true that most of the people who responded in faith to Jesus were men and women of simple means. Jesus pointed out that it is difficult for a rich man to get through the mass of his riches to come to a saving faith. Sadly, the majority of those who have riches are more focused on their riches than on their need for salvation. The Rich Young Ruler is an example.
When we look on outward appearances we are making a judgement based on things that do not matter. It was the practical experience of the early church that the rich oppressed them. Not every rich man acted in that way, but James does make a general statement that the rich are the ones who have oppressed the believers. Many of the believers lost their jobs as a result of their faith, so it is not difficult to understand how James could come to the conclusions he came to here. James is demonstrating the foolishness of the believers when they base their acceptance of a person on his riches when it is the rich who oppress them.
When James speaks of the action of the rich toward the believers, he uses the third personal pronoun in an emphatic sense. He is saying that these very ones as opposed to the poor, are the ones who have brought difficulty to them. Oppress is the general word for persecution. It comes from kata, down, and dunamai, be able to. Its noun form, dunamis, means power. The literal meaning, therefore, would speak of one who is able to power one down.
Drag you into court probably refers to being brought into the court for unpaid debt. Blaspheme the name likely refers to the name of Jesus with which they were identified in their relationship. Davids says that the calling of a name has its background in the LXX and indicates possession, belonging to or relationship. It is an indication of the using of the name of Jesus or Lord in the place of the name of Yahweh in the OT.
2:8 If, indeed, you fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you do well;
James follows up on the example of 2:1-7 by drawing some conclusions about the situation. He begins by saying, If, indeed, you are fulfilling the law that calls upon us to love our neighbor, it is a good thing. He is affirming that the motivation to love is proper.
However, this may be the defense of the believers in their favoritism toward the rich man. It is true that believers should treat the rich man well, but the problem is in making a distinction between the rich and poor men based on outward appearance. If this were the defense of the of the offenders, James could see through it because the treatment for both men was not the same. He conceded that they were doing well if their motives were not wrong. This is an affirmation that action comes out of attitude.
The royal law comes from Lev 19:18. It is the same as the manward part of the summary of the law that Jesus gave in Mt 22:39. Royal may mean a law fit for a king and as such would be practiced by kings or it may mean a law given by a king. It is probably both. The law comes from our King and is intended for those who make up the kingdom. Note that James is again close to the teaching of Jesus in the SOM and elsewhere in his interpretation of the law. The law is summed up in love.
2:9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors.
Here we see the contrast to the thought that the believers are doing well. Partiality, the same as in 2:1, means to accept on appearance rather than on true worth. The construction suggests that James knew that this was happening on a continuing basis. His conclusion is that the believers are committing sin because of the fact that the judgement is based on outward appearance. Partiality is not love; it negates love.
James strengthens his point by adding that the believers are doing more than missing the mark. They have become transgressors, or those who have deliberately stepped over the line to break the law.
2:10-11 For whoever keeps the whole law, but offends in one, has become guilty of all. For the one saying, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder;" and if you do not commit adultery but you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
James now gives the implications of the transgression. Again, it is important to note what James does not say. He is not saying that one sin is as bad as another, at least not from a human standpoint. It is true that sin is sin, and that is an important part of the argument that James is making here. However, murder is worse to us than striking someone or having a bad attitude. The problem in our assessment of “greater” and “lesser” sins is that we cannot see the ultimate outcome of the sin. For instance, we would not think of anger as being equated with murder, but Jesus pointed out that anger can lead to murder.
Neither is James saying that an adulterer becomes a murderer. The issue is not making all sins the same. The point is that when one breaks the law, he becomes a lawbreaker, whether the sin is adultery or murder or whatever. It is the same point that other NT writers made. In the example of verse eleven he says that adultery is sin; so is murder; so is partiality because it is judging based on outward appearances. The effect is the same: the law is broken.
2:12-13 Thus speak and thus do as ones who shall be judged by a law of liberty. For judgement is without mercy to the one not doing mercy. Mercy boasts against judgement.
James makes two further affirmations in verses twelve and thirteen. The first is that believers are not to behave in the way he has just described. The words speak and do are both present imperatives, indicating that believers are continually to make these specific actions a practice.
Believers will be judged by a law of liberty, which describes a law of grace but not a law of laxity. Believers will be judged according to the gracious mercy of God which sets the believers free.
The second affirmation is that one who does not consider mercy in his judgement will not be judged in mercy. The sin of partiality violates the principle of mercy and will be judged accordingly. We do not determine whether God is merciful--he is, period. He also expects us to follow his example. The simple reason the unmerciful does not receive mercy is not that God is unable to give mercy but that the condition of the unforgiving and unmerciful believer makes it impossible for him to receive forgiveness and mercy. The whole transaction is based on a decision on the part of the unmerciful. To lock another out is to lock oneself in. To reject mercy for another is to reject it for oneself.
Jesus taught the same truth in the parable of the wicked slave in Mt 18:21-35. The problem is not with God's mercy, which is sufficient for all needs; the problem is with men who are unwilling and therefore unable to receive mercy. James is reminding the believers that they live under the mercy and grace of God as it has ultimately been demonstrated in Jesus. As a result of the action of God believers can afford to be merciful in their thoughts and actions toward others.
Mercy boasts against judgement is an exclamation (may mean “to override). Here is the positive side of the equation. James is saying that the believer is to be like this and not like one who shows no mercy by judging based on outward appearance. The believer whose life gives evidence of the mercy of God is able to live a life of mercy toward others. That believer is revealing the presence of God to those around him. He has no reason to fear the judgement of God, now or later.
VIII. FAITH AND WORKS 2:14-26
For many, this passage is really the heart of the epistle. This was the section that really got Martin Luther upset. He felt that James' emphasis here was in direct contradiction to the teaching of Paul in Romans and Galatians: justification by faith without the works of the law. Of course, we do read in Paul that we are saved by grace through faith apart from the works of the law. But there is also an emphasis in Paul on doing good works as a result of the initial experience of salvation. It seems to me that James and Paul are not in opposition to each other but they are attacking the problem from different perspectives.
There are those who say that James wrote to contradict Paul or that Paul wrote to defend his Gospel against James. I doubt that this is true. I believe James wrote before Paul and I do not know whether Paul ever saw James' writing. Certainly there is not the kind of polemic in James that we would expect if he wrote to refute Paul. James does not refer to Paul at all in his letter, but Paul does mention James. A careful reading of Paul’s letters indicates that there is no derogatory reference to James in them.
It seems to me that Paul's emphasis is on faith from the perspective of the inception of the Christian experience. On the other hand, James attacks the problem from the perspective of the outcome of the salvation experience--what happens as a result of the salvation experience. James is saying that one who is saved is going to show it. Paul says that when you come to know Christ it is not because of something that you do but because of something that has been done for you in Christ.
Paul also had some things to say about works. In Eph 2:8-10 he says we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works. That is the same message that James gives. Paul also said that we are to put off the old man with his deeds and put on the new man. In addition, he said every man will give an account of the deeds he has done in Christ. Paul also had an emphasis on deeds of piety even as James did.
What is the issue here in James? It seems to me that verses 18-19 may hold an important key to interpreting this passage. James was concerned with the assertion that faith and works could exist separately (v.18). He knew that such could not be the case. Faith that is real will be accompanied by works. Works that are real will be motivated by faith. The two go together.
James was also concerned with those who were verbally affirming the existence and uniqueness of God, but who showed no evidence of a change in their lives as a result of a relationship with God. A Jew might say, “God is One!” A Christian might affirm a creed of one kind or another. However, James asserts that the affirmation of words does not make a difference in the way one lives or in the way one relates to others.
It is also important to note that James is never pictured in the text of the NT as one who is opposed to salvation by grace through faith and nothing else. When we see the references to James in Acts 15 and in Galatians 2, it is clear that he was in full agreement with Paul and the others. Even in the reference to the “men from James” in Gal 2:12 there is no indication that James had an attitude any different from Paul.
Instead of an attack on Paul’s theology or a defense of his own against an attack from Paul, it seems more likely that James is affirming his own theology that real faith will demonstrate itself in the works that flow normally from it. In the same way the faith relationship with God in Christ is demonstrated through trials, wisdom, character, and avoiding judgement based on outward appearance, it is also demonstrated by good works. James is not using faith in the sense of a verbal affirmation or a mental assent. Rather, he uses faith as a particular kind of response to God in Christ that makes a difference in one’s reaction to all of life. Faith is not a mere profession. It is a response to God like the response to God that Jesus made during his life on earth. James affirms that God does the saving through his generous grace as he demonstrates his mercy to us. At our response God brings about a change in us that leads to our becoming like Jesus.
2:14 What is the profit, my brothers, if anyone says that he has faith, but does not have works, that kind of faith is not able to save him is it?
It is interesting to note that James does not say, if a man has faith. He says if anyone says that he has faith, that is, the man claims to have faith. He supposes an argument from someone that may claim to have faith but does not have works. The crux of the passage is Can that kind of faith save him?
This passage is usually translated Can faith save him? That is a weak translation. Two things in Greek syntax need to be noted here. First, the question is introduced by the negative particle me. This negative particle when introducing a question expects a negative answer. That is the way the Greeks indicated the expected negative answer in writing. They had voice inflection as we do in English, but they also had a way to indicate it in writing. If the question began with the negative particle ou or ouk, the expected answer would be affirmative. If it began with me the expected answer was negative. Very few of our English translations preserve this nuance. The NASB almost does with the word that. So, James expected the negative answer: That kind of faith cannot save him.
The second point that needs to be noted is that the Greek article is derived from the relative pronoun and has a relative meaning at times. Sometimes, like the relative pronoun, it could be translated "that." I think that is the case here. James is referring to that kind of or that quality. James is not asking the general question whether faith is able to save a man. He is asking about a particular kind of faith, that is, faith that does not demonstrate itself in works.
Jesus spoke about this same matter. He said that the tree will be known by its fruit. He said we are not to hide our candles under a bushel but are to let our lights shine so that men may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. John the Baptist said that men were to bring forth fruits that demonstrate repentance. This is a NT axiom. It is not some new teaching that James came up with. Jesus, Paul, Peter, and James all say the same. If you are saved, you will demonstrate that salvation by the works that you do.
The Greek noun pistis and the verb pisteuo are used to express a wide range of belief from intellectual belief to actual commitment of life. As much as we like to talk about what faith means, and it does mean what we say it means like commitment and trust, in other contexts the noun pistis and the verb pisteuo can mean simple intellectual belief or intellectual assent in addition to its meaning in the Christian context, Christian commitment to Christ.
The kind of faith that James speaks of here is head knowledge or verbal affirmation, as we see clearly later. That kind of faith can't save him, can it? The expected answer is no.
2:15-16 If a brother or sister is without adequate clothing and lacks food for the day, and one out of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warm and be gorged," and yet you do not give them what is needed for the body, what profit is that?
James illustrates the principle he has stated. The Greek word gumnoi is the word from which we get our word "gymnasium," the place where the Greeks exercised without their clothes, so it came to mean without clothes. It usually means without sufficient clothes rather than totally without clothes. The reference is to those who do not have sufficient clothes to keep them warm. The construction indicates that this is a continuing state. The picture is of one who does not have sufficient clothing and does not have the means to buy them. The same is true of the food situation. The man did not have enough food for the day, and the situation probably continued from day to day. He was hungry.
The response as stated by James would be ridiculous. James is saying that such a person would be dealing in platitudes. Go in peace is a sort of "Cheer up, buddy" kind of response. "Things can't be that bad. It will get better. Get yourself some warm clothes, a blanket, whatever else you need, and while you are at it, stuff yourself." Richardson notes that the greeting, “Go in peace,” was only valid in the ancient world when it was accompanied by some effort at making the situation of the recipient better. Along with the greeting would come an offering of some kind or some other effort to improve the person’s situation. The same thing is true today. When we see one in need and do not seek to meet that need we are doing exactly as James speaks of here. The need is evident. It would be ridiculous to try to meet the need with a platitude.
2:17 Thus also with faith, if it does not have works, it is dead by itself.
The word Thus means in the same manner. It is houtos. The same word is used in Jn 3:16 to say Thus God loved the world. It means in this particular kind of way. In this same way as a wish of “Go in Peace, be warmed and be filled” is utterly ridiculous, so is the concept of faith without works. It is dead because it is by itself. It is not real. It is an oxymoron. James is advocating the same thing John advocated in 1 John 3:17-18, “But whoever might have the things necessary for life in the world and might see his brother having need of them, if he closes his bowels of compassion from him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word neither with the tongue, but in action and truth.”
2:18 But someone says, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you the faith out of my works.
It is clear that James is using the literary device of an imaginary adversary here, but it is not clear at first what his role is in the dialogue. When we look at the entire verse, we can clearly see that James is taking the position that faith is demonstrated by works. He is clearly the one who holds that position. The conclusion is that you cannot demonstrate faith apart from works. In fact, from what James said in verse 17, faith cannot exist separately from works.
An illustration of that might be to say show me what electricity looks like. You can't because electricity cannot be seen. How much does it weigh? How much of it does it take to make a foot or a pound? What color is it? There is not answer to these questions. However, you can see a light bulb burning, a stove heated, a house lit and warm in winter and cool in summer. You can hear music from a stereo and see a picture on television. Electricity will do a lot of things that can be seen, but you cannot see electricity.
It is the same with faith. You show me your faith without your works. You cannot do it. But I can show you my faith by my works. That is what faith looks like. It looks like good works. It looks like a person becoming more like Jesus.
2:19 You believe that God is one? You do well; the demons also believe and tremble.
James may still be using the imaginary antagonist. "Well, James, I believe that God is one." This affirmation was very close to the Jewish Shema, repeated three times a day by the Jews (Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one). The implication seems to be that is what faith is. James replies by saying that the demons even recognize that and it causes them to tremble. However, intellectual assent to the existence of God, or the affirmation of a creedal saying daily, or even agreement to the attributes of God is not enough. The kind of faith that is real is the faith that demonstrates itself in works, not just faith that talks.
2:20 But are you willing to know, o foolish man, that faith without works is ineffective?
The word for ineffective is arge, meaning idle, unemployed, lazy, or ineffective. It could be used of an unemployed worker or someone who does not get the job done. It could be used in a moral sense of not accomplishing any good. This negative concept describes an intellectual belief that is only an outward expression and worthless.
2:21-24 Was not Abraham our father made righteous out of works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that the faith worked together with his works and out of the works the faith was made complete, and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him into righteousness," and he was called the friend of God. You see that out of works a man is made righteous and not out of faith alone.
James then used two illustrations. The first is an illustration of Abraham. The use of Abraham as an illustration has caused some to conclude that James is using Abraham in contradiction to Paul in Romans 4 and Galatians 3. However, we must remember that James wrote earlier than Paul and that the two used Abraham as an example because of his position as the father of the faithful. He was a natural choice because he was the epitome of a good man.
It might be profitable for us to compare the use of Abraham as an example by James here and by Paul in Romans 4. First, Romans 4:1-25.
1. Abraham could boast if he were made right by works. However, boasting is excluded before God (2). Presumably the boasting is excluded because of God’s apparent grace and mercy.
2. God put on Abraham’s account that Abraham was made righteous. If Abraham had been made righteous by works, it would not be true that God put it on his account (as a gift), but it would have been wages due. (3-5)
3. Was it the act of circumcision that made Abraham righteous? No. Circumcision came after the righteousness as a sign and seal of Abraham having been made righteous through faith. (10-12)
4. Was it through the law, or faith? It is by faith because of God’s grace. Abraham believed the promise of God’s grace and was made righteous. We are made righteous in the same way. (13-25)
5. The implication is that one who is made righteousness will demonstrate righteous acts.
Next: James 2:21-24
1. Abraham was made right by works when he offered up Isaac (Gen 22). (21)
2. Faith was working with his works (in the Isaac incident?) And through works faith was perfected. (22)
3. Abraham believed God (Gen 15) and in was accounted to him as righteousness, and he was called the friend of God. (23)
4. Man is made right by works and not by faith alone. (24)
5. James assumes faith (Gen 15) and shows that works demonstrate faith (Gen 22).
The question about Abraham begins with the negative particle ouk and therefore expects an affirmative answer. When Paul used the example of Abraham he used it to demonstrate that salvation is not by merit. James uses it to demonstrate that faith without works is futile. James attacks the problem from the perspective of a believer who has already received salvation by grace through faith. He is not saying that Abraham was saved by his works but that Abraham's works demonstrate his salvation. Abraham was demonstrating his faith relationship to God (Gen. 15) when he offered his son Isaac on the altar.
In verse twenty-two the word sunergei, translated worked together, indicates a cooperation between two things or persons. It is in the imperfect tense which indicates continuing action in past time. Faith and works were continually working together in Abraham's life. If there had been no faith the works would have been meaningless. If there had been no works the faith would have been meaningless. By the works the faith was demonstrated to be complete. His works brought his faith to the desired end.
The word translated reckoned in verse twenty-three is a technical word used in accounting to mean placed on the credit side of the ledger. The quotation puts the cap on the argument of James that faith is demonstrated by works. I don't believe that Paul would have had any trouble with that conclusion.
James' summary statement of the argument is in verse twenty-four. The key to the verse is in the last phrase not by faith alone. James' conclusion is that a man's faith is demonstrated by works of righteousness and not by faith alone.
2:25 And likewise, was not also the harlot Rahab made righteous out of works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
James chose to use the same illustration, but this time he chose Rahab, from the Joshua account of the children of Israel coming into the promised land. James was showing the universal application of the truth of his argument. Not only was it applicable in the life of the paragon of virtue, Abraham, it was also applicable in the life of the harlot Rahab. Both were saved because they believed God and demonstrated their faith by their works (Hebrews 11:31). Works makes faith complete in the life of both.
2:26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, in the same way faith without works is dead.
Dr. Harold Bryson used to lecture on Death and Destiny. He would talk about a dead person. How do you know that a person is dead? You speak and they don't speak back. You see that they do not breathe. You see that they have no heartbeat. They do not respond to stimuli; you punch them with a needle and they do not jump. When there is no life there the body does not animate. What makes the body animate? It can do so only when the real person is there. This body is not the real me. It houses the real me, but it is not the real me. If the real me were not here, the body would be dead. The body without the real me is a corpse. That is why the undertaker calls it the remains.
This is a truth that we need to get across to our people. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.
The same principle is applied by James to faith and works. Faith without works is not living faith; it is dead. It cannot animate. It has to have something to demonstrate that it is alive, a vehicle by which to operate. Faith without works is dead.
IX. FAITH AND THE TONGUE: 3:1-12
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That may be an attractive saying for children or for adults who want to express toughness, but the plain truth is the statement is a lie. Words do hurt. Other animals may have a way of communicating with sounds that we do not understand, but humans have a distinct way of communicating with each other through words. We use words in many ways. As James said in this chapter we use them both to bless God and to curse men.
Jesus said what is inside a man comes out and is made known. It is obvious that words are the primary indicator of what is going on inside of people. We can use them to
1. Express our deepest feelings.
2. Express our most eloquent ideas.
3. Compliment people when we feel good about them.
4. Complain when we feel badly about them.
5. Express our deepest feelings of love.
6. Speak our harshest words of hate.
7. Soothe troubled hearts.
8. Stir up people to rage.
Jesus also said we are responsible for our use of words (Mt 12:36), and James agrees. He has already said that believers are to be “slow to speak” (1:19) and that any man whose religion is worth its salt controls his tongue. Now, in 3:1-12, James gives us the strongest teaching in the NT on the tongue.
In the overall picture of faith and its relation to the living out of the relationship believers have with God in Christ, how does the tongue fit? What determines which direction our tongue is used? The thing that makes the difference whether we bless or curse is the relationship in our hearts. If we live in faith and respond daily to the word from God in our lives, we can control our tongues. James gives us the hardest test here.
3:1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a greater judgement.
The first word in the sentence is “many,” therefore, that is where James put the emphasis. Perhaps there was a clamor in his community like there was at Corinth. Everybody wanted to have a hand in what was going on in the church at Corinth. There were too many chiefs and not enough Indians. That would certainly be a potential problem today. That may be what James is addressing here. We might translate it, “Stop trying to be teachers so many of you, my brothers.” Everybody was wanting to have a hand in instruction or during the time of worship. You can see this in any kind of group of people. There are always those who want to get in a word. The church is no exception.
This first verse is generally translated with a rather mild idea–“do not try to be teachers, many of you” or “ do not seek to be teachers. But there is an imperative here. The verb “to become” is an imperative with a negative particle me along with it. James is admonishing them to stop doing something they are in the process of doing. He encourages them not to be overly anxious about seeking the office of a teacher. A teacher had status and position in the early church. It may be that James is encouraging them not to be presumptuous in seeking the status and position. Moo calls it a warning against arrogance. Too many of the people may have been seeking the office of teacher without the qualifications so they could exert their supposed influence.
The reason for the warning is that teachers will receive a greater judgement. Notice that James includes himself in the group of teachers. Is James saying the standard of judgement is greater for a teacher? Is there a double standard for teachers and other believers? Or is he saying that the consequences of judgement will be greater for those who stumble in their teaching? Probably the latter. While judgement can mean “condemnation” in the sense of judgement done and a guilty verdict concluded, it can also refer to judgement without reference to the outcome. James could be saying that the teacher has a greater responsibility for the stewardship of the use of the tongue because of the greater burden he carries in his teaching role due to the frequent use of the tongue.
Clearly, a teacher has a heavy responsibility for teaching the Word whatever the format of the teaching may be. Jesus said, in Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked,” Paul’s gave an account of the stewardship of his own teaching in Acts 20:26-27, “I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.
Moo seeks to impress the seriousness of the calling to be a teacher on all of us who teach regularly. He encourages us to make the same application of this teaching of James to our own teaching as James made to his.  We should note that James not only included himself among the teachers, he also included himself in this potential judgement; we also are included. Whether we stand in the pulpit and deliver, or teach at a seminary or college, or teach in a Sunday School class or lead in worship, the responsibility for the consequences of our teaching is great. We need to stress this to our people. Jesus said that every word we speak will be judged (Mt 12:36). In the context of the increased responsibility for teachers, that leaves us in an awesome position. We are under heavy obligation when we come to teach the Word on Sundays.
3:2 For in many ways we all stumble. If anyone does not stumble in word, this one is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body.
James also includes himself in the problem of frequent stumbling. Again, it is the emphasized concept in the verse. We all do it and we do it often. However, James says if you can keep your tongue in check, you can take care of the rest of your body. Whoever can control his speech is a “perfect man.” What does “perfect” mean? It means “perfect.”
The word James used to demonstrate the control of the body is the infinitive to bridle. The emphasis is that the “perfect” man is able to control the body in the same way a man is able to control a horse with the use of a bridle and bits.
The point of the verse is clear: the use of the tongue provides us with the most frequent opportunities to sin by using words in a hurtful or destructive way. Those opportunities are a problem for teachers and other believers alike. If one is able in the context of the faith relationship with Christ on the inside, to control the tongue, he will be able to control all of the functions of the body.
James uses six illustrations in 3:3-12 to demonstrate the importance of tongue control. The first three, bits in the horse’s mouth, the rudder of a ship, and a small spark that begins a large forest fire, illustrate little objects that do big things. The last three, a fountain, a fig tree, and salt water, demonstrate the inconsistency of two diametrically opposed products coming from the same source.
3: 3 Now, if we put bits into the mouths of the horses to persuade them to obey us, we also guide their whole body.
There is a textual variant here, but it really makes no difference in the meaning of the text or in the use of the illustration by James. The KJV reflects some manuscripts that include the word frequently translated “behold,” and most modern translations reflect the translation of a particle meaning “but,” “and,” or “now” and one meaning “if.” James did use the attention getting “behold” in other places, so either of the resulting translations would fit the context.
James’ analogies in the first three illustrations all describe something that is very small but has a very large effect on something much bigger. The first one is bits and horses. It is true that the tongue does not control the body like the bits control the horse, but the small/large image is clear. James is likely talking about war horses here and not plow horses. Most common men did not have access to horses, but they all saw the Roman soldiers riding them. He says we put the bit and bridle in his mouth, so that he will obey us and then we are able to turn his whole body about. The bit and the bridle are small in comparison to the size of the horse, but the horse obeys the rider because the bit and the bridle do a big job. The application to the tongue is that though it is a small member, it has a disproportionate effect on the body.
3:4 Look at the ships big as they are and driven by strong winds, they are controlled by a very small rudder where the impulse of the pilot wills.
The second illustration uses ships and rudders. The picture is clear. The ship is very large and is influenced by the power of great winds, but the control of the ship is in the very small rudder. The word translated "impulse" is a word which can mean pressure, but it probably doesn't denote the physical pressure on the rudder nor does it refer to the rational purpose of the helmsman necessarily in trying to keep a straight course. Rather, it expresses the free exercise of that pilot who is in control of the vessel. It refers to what the pilot decides to do with the small rudder.
3:5 Thus also the tongue; it is a small member and boasts of great things. Look at how small a spark sets aflame such a great forest.
And so, here are little objects that do big things: there is the bit and the bridle and there is the rudder on the boat. There is also the tongue, small but influential on the body. Note also the need for a guiding hand for the reins and rudder. Now James says in the same way the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. Just as the bit and bridle can control the horse, and just as the rudder can direct the ship, so the tongue being a little member, boasts great things.
I suppose that the tongue is the most powerful muscle in the human body. Have you ever come to the close of a day and said, "My tongue's so tired, I just don't believe I can lift it." Have you ever, after talking for a couple of hours said to somebody, "Look, I'm just going to have to stop talking for awhile; my tongue's tired. I just can't make it any more." I've had sore throats; I've had tired feet and aching muscles, but I can't ever remember my tongue getting tired. I can waggle that thing all day and it never gets tired. It absolutely must be the strongest muscle in the human body.”–Billy Simmons
What we need to understand here also is that you can't separate the tongue from the person. James is isolating the tongue, but you can't blame it all on the tongue because the tongue only does what we tell it to do. Have you ever said, "Oh, I spoke before I thought." You know, that's impossible. Biologically, that is impossible. You can't speak before you think because the brain has to command the tongue before the tongue will move. Those electrical impulses have to come from the brain down through the brain matter into the nerves that go into the tongue and say wiggle, waggle; and it has to do it. I don't move my arm until my brain tells it to move. I don't verbalize it every time. I don't say, "Arm, move." But I know that I can't animate my body until my brain tells it to; these are not involuntary reflexes. Now, some things are involuntary, at least to the extent that we can't control them. Our heartbeat and things like that are involuntary but the tongue is not an involuntary organ when it comes to speech.
James adds a third example after his summary, almost as an afterthought. However, it is a clear example of his point. Small spark; great fire. The word for "forest" could be a group of trees, living trees, or it could be just a pile of wood, either one would answer to the word here. Every year as I drive on the highways I am amazed at how many fires are started on the medians of the interstate or on the roadside, presumably by the spark generated by a cigarette someone has flipped out of a car. The dry grass becomes just like a tinder box and it can start quickly.
I saw something on TV recently that there are those who have sought to exonerate Mrs. O'Malley's cow in the Chicago fire, but it's still a good story. Mrs. O'Malley's cow kicked over the lantern and caught Mrs. O'Malley's barn on fire and from there the whole city of Chicago caught on fire and there was a great conflagration there because Mrs. O'Malley's cow kicked over the lantern. Well, it makes good preaching, a good illustration anyhow whether or not it was true.
Careless people. Small things. So it is with our tongue - careless words. Words can be misunderstood. You might speak to someone who is on edge sometime, who might get the wrong idea about what you say. You need to recognize that a small spark can set the woods on fire and a word carelessly spoken can start things in churches that last a long time. You can start more mischief with the wrong word in a few minutes than you can clean up in months.
3:6 And the tongue is a fire; the very world of iniquity, the tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body and setting aflame the wheel of our existence and being set aflame by Gehenna.
Commentators have all sorts of difficulty with this. They just don't think this is the original text. They don't think this is what James wrote and they have tried to amend it. There isn't any textual evidence that there is any particular problem in v. 6. I don't see any reason to do anything but try to interpret what James is saying. It is a harsh statement, but James is completing his metaphor. The tongue is a fire. It's a world of unrighteousness placed among our members when it is not well tended by our faith relationship. It can defile the whole body. This phrase, sets on fire the wheel of our existence, is an interesting phrase. There are three ways that this can be taken:
1. James might be referring to the whole cycle of life from the cradle to the grave, looking at the full cycle of human life .
2. Or it might simply mean that it permeates every area of life.
3. The third way that it may be taken is that it has infected all of history, the succession of human generations from Adam ad infinitum, that all mankind has been infected from the very inception.
The picture that is generated by this figure of speech is that of a chariot wheel with the axle here in the center (when the hub became dry and was turning around rapidly, the friction that would be produced from the metal against the wood sometimes produced a spark. The spark would catch the hub on fire, and it would spread out to every area of the wheel and burn up the whole wheel. That is likely what is the idea or picture image that is generated by this figure of speech. Now, whether the spreading of the fire is to the full cycle of life from the cradle to the grave, this being the very beginning of life and it just spreads out, or whether this is the beginning of the human race and spreads out to all the human race or if this is the center of life itself and it just incorporates and infects all of the emotions of life would mean about the same. Any of these three would fit the context.
And being set aflame by Gehenna. Now, that's a strong statement. It indicates the outcome of a tongue not controlled by a faith relationship with God.
a. spread of gossip and rumors.
b. V 6 see Jesus in Mt 15:11-19
c. Paul in Eph 4:29 and 5:4
d. Hitler and Lenin
e. But look also at Isaiah--tongue can be set on fire by heaven
f. Look also at Peter at Pentecost
3:7 For every kind of wild animal, bird, reptile, and sea life is controlled and has been controlled by human nature,
James tells us that every type of beast, every type of wild animal has been domesticated. The word that is used for beast here is only used of wild animals in the New Testament. It is never used of domesticated animals, so he is talking about animals that are wild: those that fly, those that crawl and those that swim; he covers the whole field.
We have seen snake charmers; we have seen the snakes that are tame. Dr. Simmons tells about seeing a biologist on Wild Kingdom who was in the zoo business. He was over in South America and they had captured one of these big snakes, about 25 feet long or so and about as big around as a fireplug. He was going to film a series with that snake and he had his camera man all set up and everything ready; and they had it hemmed up in a big pit. He got in there with that snake to get hold of it, and somehow that snake got hold of his hand and began to swallow his hand and said it swallowed him all the way up to his shoulder. He said he had enough sense not to try to jerk it out because he said they have rows of teeth and he would have just split his arm to pieces jerking it out. The snake carries a lot of bacteria in his mouth, and he probably would have gotten infected and probably would have lost his arm. He said he knew that he couldn't go any further than his shoulder because he was just too big for him, but he said it just mortified him. He began to regain his senses and after awhile the snake began to regurgitate his arm and just spit it back out. He said he got out of that pit and the camera man was just standing over there with his mouth open and said he didn't get a single frame of it. Almost swallowed by that snake and the camera man just sitting there frozen! He said the snake finally got away some how.
They tame the other wild animals. At the Ringling Bros. Circus I saw polar bears and I saw lions and elephants that were tame. You know we are doing a lot of research with porpoises these days. They claim that they have instilled enough knowledge in these porpoises that not only can they take messages and do thing, they can kill enemy frogmen. They have that much intelligence and training.
Domestication is is not just a recent occurrence. Pliny tells us that one of the Roman emperors had fish ponds in his palace and in the fishpond he had fish who had names and came to the surface when their names were called to get food. James isn't putting us on here, they actually have been domesticated -- but the tongue, and it is in a position for emphasis cannot be tamed.
3:8 But the tongue, no human being at all can tame. It is a restless evil, full of death-bearing poison.
James emphasizes the tongue here since it is first in the sentence. The statement about the tongue is also emphatic. No human at all can tame it. The word here for restless is the same word for unstable; an unstable evil full of poison. In these early times it was thought that the serpent carried his poison in his tongue; they didn't know about fangs. James says the tongue is full of death-bearing poison.
3:9 With this we praise the Lord and Father, and with this we curse men, the ones who came to be in the likeness of God.
Praise is a good word. We give good words to God in worship and in witness, but at the same time we give “down words” to men. Men are made in the image of God.
3:10 Out of the same mouth proceeds blessing and cursing. My brothers, things like this ought not to be.
The ought for James words comes from the relationship the believer has. His reaction is appropriately incredulous. How can such things be? “The parson’s sermon has deprived me of most of what I would say.”
3:11 A spring cannot gush out sweet and bitter water from the same crevice, can it?
This is the fourth illustration to demonstrate wrong use of the tongue. The first three illustrated that small things can have big effects. These three illustrate that the source determines the output. One fountain or one spring doesn't spray forth sweet and bitter water at the same place, does it? When the water is sweet, you expect it to remain sweet; it's coming from a good spring. You don't get sweet water and bitter water from the same place.
a. In the pulpit and in life
b. At home and with strangers.
3:12 A fig tree cannot make olives, can it? Or a vine figs? Neither can salt water produce sweet.
The illustrations from botany are obvious. As is the water illustration. James is not saying that man will never be able to desalinize water. His point is still source. In the same way the source of figs is a fig tree and the fruit of a vine is grapes and not figs, the source of drinkable water is not the ocean.
X. FAITH AND TWO KINDS OF WISDOM 3:13-18
3:13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him indicate [his wisdom and understanding] by his lifestyle the deeds done in gentleness of wisdom.
Does James refer to teachers here, or to all the believers? While some commentators indicate James is applying the requirement of the demonstration of wisdom to the teachers, it seems more likely that the application is to the believers as a whole. The principles certainly apply to all believers.
James has already shown the relationship of faith to wisdom. One who walks in a faith relationship can have wisdom because he asks it from God. Wisdom equals knowing and doing the will of God. The combination of the two words, wise and understanding, refers to knowing the truth of God and how to live it out in the context of the faith relationship. However, James insists that saying is not doing. A demonstration is called for. You cannot separate wisdom and lifestyle any more that you can separate faith and deeds.
The demonstration is done through the wise man’s lifestyle. James refers not to isolated deeds, but to a way of life that is demonstrated every day. The lifestyle reflects the result of a decision to respond in faith to Jesus. The outcome of the relationship is an attitude of life instilled in the believer as the Lord works His righteousness in him. What can be seen in his life is a series of good deeds that come out of the attitude of obedience. These good works add up to a lifestyle that indicates the wisdom and understanding of the believer. It is a cycle. God through his gift of His Son is the origin and the originator of the wisdom and the good behavior. The wise man follows him. Wisdom and understanding demonstrate themselves in good behavior (attitude) and good deeds which produce wisdom and understanding which produce good behavior and good deeds. And on it goes as the believer grows in Christ.
Gentleness of wisdom indicates that the believer practices his wisdom and understanding with a gentle spirit. Gentle is the opposite of haughty or arrogant. Following the example of Jesus, the meek one, the believer should be teachable in the sense that he is listening to God’s instructions and obedient to his commands.
3:14-15 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and lie against the truth. This is not the wisdom coming down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic.
But indicates a contrast in values with the previous verse. Bitter jealousy seems to me to be a good translation. I know that the word is strong, and some want to indicate that by using “envy” or “harsh rivalry,” but we are familiar with the concept of jealousy with its focus on self, and the addition of the word “bitter” by James indicates the strength of his intent. The attitude does indicate harsh rivalries and self-centeredness.
Selfish ambition indicates unscrupulous pursuit of personal gain. May also contain the idea in the New Testament of “strife” and “contentiousness.” Is desires something for self at the expense of othere. In addition, it is looking to what one wants for oneself rather than what God wants. Selfish ambition usurps the authority of God and is therefore idolatry.
Be arrogant is boastful and equals calling attention to oneself rather than the things of God. James may be giving us an explanation of “arrogant” with do not lie against the truth. That equals denying the truth one claims to believe. Don’t boast about faith if you don’t have it or if you don’t show it. Don’t talk about what God requires if you are not being obedient. Don’t talk about the love of God if you don’t understand it and experience it in your own life. If you do have it you will show it. These words hurt, especially if we know we are looking out for our own interests rather than God’s. We need to remember that we deny the faith by our actions.
James indicates the contrast in verse 15. If you say you have wisdom and understanding and do not indicate it by your lifestyle, you are lying and demonstrating a different kind of wisdom. Instead of wisdom from heaven, that is, having its source in God, it is wisdom from hell. James describes it with what seem to be three ascending adjectives. It is earthly, that is from the earth. It reflects the attitude of those who have their source in the earth as opposed to heaven. It describes people whose wisdom is in opposition to the will and purpose of God. The “wisdom” is also natural. The meaning here can be best understood by using a negative definition. It is unspiritual, that is, its origin is physical rather than spiritual. Finally, this “wisdom” is demonic. The meaning of this word is clear. It has the devil as a source rather that God.
3:16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition are, there is instability and every evil deed.
Actions come out of attitudes: jealousy and selfishness are attitudes; the resulting actions are disorder or instability and evil deeds. Instability is literally “no standing down.” It is unruliness which causes public riots or insurrection. Instability or restlessness reflects looking two ways. The result is disturbance within the community. This instability coming from jealousy and selfish ambition underlines the need to seek the wisdom of God in the roles of church leadership. Otherwise, we see manipulation by man seeking his own benefit, making himself look good.
Evil deeds equals “worthless, bad, immoral.” Religious evil is especially bad. In proverbs the sin of the ungodly makes them appear to be fools. Religious fools, wise in their own eyes, can be especially dangerous to the fellowship and the health of the church because of the deception. It is still true that those who seek the praise of men often get it, to the detriment of the health of the fellowship.
3:17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceful, considerate, obedient to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, not hypocritical.
James presents the contrast in the wisdom that is earthly and the wisdom from heaven. Note that James seems to emphasize the first characteristic of the wisdom by saying it is first pure. Its purity comes from its source. Puremeans holy, sacred. The word does have a moral overtone. It comes from God, not from man. Purity begins in an attitude of surrender to God and results in action. It does not depend on the approval of man or look to please certain men because of who they are.
Peaceful is full of peace, loving peace. Peace is not always possible, but should always be the option when it depends on us. It is the opposite of disorder and is centered in the unity of Christ. That is the way the church can be at peace: all of the members are centered on Jesus with no rivalries or factions.
Considerate is gentle, non-combative, not easily provoked, conciliatory. Obedient to reason is literally “of a good persuasion” or reasonable. It means one can be reasoned with, is willing to listen and change if necessary. Especially is willing to submit to the authority of God and therefore willing to submit to his people.
Full of mercy and Good fruits means forgiving, not being judgemental. Willing to meet needs like Jesus, even when people do not deserve it. This wisdom from above demonstrates itself in action. How would one like this react to a beggar?
Impartial is a word close to James’ heart. It indicates an attitude that is unwavering, that makes decision based on the understanding of God’s will rather than on outward appearances.
Not hypocritical means not two-faced. The word describes a genuine person who shows on the outside what he is on the inside.
3:18 But the fruit of righteousness in peace is sown by those who make peace.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the ones who make peace because they will be called the sons of God.” (Matt. 5:9). James holds the same opinion. Those who make peace are those who have a faith relationship with Jesus and who are actively working to make His Kingdom come in the lives of people. Dissension and warfare, which James talks about in Chapter 4, have no place in the lives of believers or in their fellowship. Those who walk in relationship to Christ are busy living peace and spreading peace in the fellowship. The result is the growth of righteousness in the lives of believers. James may be using a proverb here to conclude this section, but if so, he has chosen one that sums up his instruction.
Moo, Pillar, 149.
See Davids and Martin in loc.
XI. 4.1-10 FAITH AND FRIENDSHIP
4.1 From where do wars and from where do fights come among you? Is it not from this source: from your pleasures, from the warrings in your members?
Could this be a picture of the early church? Do you think James could be talking about Christians? Did they have so many problems so early? What about the Corinthians?
From 4.1-5.12 James uses some strong language to describe the problems faced by the early believer. He turns to some practical applications regarding some very serious problems there. Is it very different for today?
The theme of 1-3 is conflicts that occur between persons originate from the conflicts within persons. Look at the conflict caused by the civil war that raged in Adolf Hitler, and the result of it! Conflict between people is caused by conflict in people. What is the source? Fights is actually the second listed in Greek, but the order makes no difference. Clearly the fights come before the wars. Fights are fighting, strife, disputes. The word is always in the plural because it is rare to see only one. The word applies to conflict without weapons--but they can easily escalate into the use of weapons.
Among you refers to the fellowship of the church. The conflicts originate inside the person, but come out in open conflict between people.
Wars are armed conflict, a strong word that depicts serious struggle. Together the two words present a picture that is the opposite to 3.18, the fruit of righteousness sown in peace. Remember 1.20: The righteousness of God is not accomplished by the anger of men.
Pleasures is the desire (in this case for evil--lust) that resides within the believers. The word is the word from which we get “hedonist.” It refers to physical feelings known as bodily appetites. A hedonist is one who is most concerned about pleasing self. Is this any different than what James described in 3.13-18?
Wars is a military word for doing battle. Pleasures are doing battle within your members. Members refers to fighting within the body, not fighting among members of the “body of Christ.” There are deformed desires within us that battle for supremacy. The people are not fighting for the truth, they are engaged in an infighting in their own souls. As a result, they become contentious and begin fiting each other. There must be a battle against these by the confrontation brought about by the presence and power of the Spirit within the believer. These battles are often referred to as a constant, daily battle that is ongoing, but that is not exactly accurate. The battle has been won. Remember that the location of the battle is the same as the location of the Spirit who indwells and empowers us. We simply need to be reminded on a daily basis that the battle is over.
4: 2 You desire and you do not have. You commit murder and covet and you are not able to attain. You fight and you go to war; you do not have because you do not ask.
Desire leads to murder. Do you think James really wanted to be this serious? Should this word be softened? What is the motivation for murder? How does it relate to self-desire? Unsatisfied desire leads to fights and quarrels. What is the motivation?
Is it literal murder? Metaphorical? Does it come from what leads to murder like Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount? Davids thinks the murder is metaphorical. Moo thinks the murder has a literal meaning, but that James uses it hypothetically, not as an account of an actual happening in the churches.
You fight and go to war probably refers to the conflicts mentioned above. The people are going to great lengths to attain what they desire, but their efforst are not accomplishing it. There is a better way. Why do they not pray? Is it because they are too focused on self and their own sufficiency? What is prayer? Is it magical? Is it a lever we can use against God? Or is it communication whereby we seek the opportunity to be changed by God? How would one pray according to God’s will when he is so self-centered? Could that be the problem?
V.3 You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly in order to may spend it on your pleasures.
Even when they prayed they got it wrong. The problem with their alleged praying was that they prayed with the wrong motives. It is not that the form or the posture of their prayer was wrong, they were praying selfishly so that they could enjoy sensual pleasure. Even if the object of their pleasure was not immorality, selfish appeasement would also be wrong. Deviation of the commitment from God to self is unfaithfulness.
4.4-5 Adultresses! Don’t you know that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that to no purpose the Scripture speaks, “With envy he yearns the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?”
James picks up on the Old Testament concept of the spiritual infidelity of Israel. The concept holds God to be the husband of his people, and the people have been unfaithful to him. That is certainly a clear and easily understood metaphor. It is also a serious message for the church.
The idea of friendship of the world being enmity with God is not new in the biblical account. Faithfulness to God was demanded in the Old Testament and that did not change with the coming of Jesus. The world is the whole system of humanity apart from God. It is an evil force. For James, like in the Letters of John, there is no middle point. One is either committed to God or an enemy. Anything less than total commitment is wrong. You can’t take both forks of the road. Those who are friends of the world want the same thing the world wants; those who are friends of God want what God wants.
What Scripture is James quoting? The Old Testament as we know it was the Scripture that James knew. This quote does not clearly come from the Septuagint or the Hebrew Bible. It is true that they were aware of other writings, but there is no evidence that the other writings were considered Scripture. There is also no evidence that James was citing some oral or written accounts from the ministry of Jesus as Scripture. He may have been paraphrasing or citing some Old Testament text generally. Moo suggests that he was citing the theme of God’s jealousy for his people. We cannot know, but it is clear that James’ readers would know what he meant. The principle stands.
The other question about this passage is whether James is saying God yearns for the Spirit in us or whether he is referring to some spirit of desire that promotes jealousy in us. While either may technically be possible, the construction indicates that God is the subject and the object of the sentence is the spirit that he yearns for. Why is God jealous (in the good sense of the word) for us? Because He lives in us. I think it may be that this is a reference to the faith relationship that permeates the letter. God desires that we be focused on him in that relationship rather than allowing our minds and hearts to go off after all manner of evil desires that satisfy our selfish interests.. The only way we can have victory over the evil desires is to be focused on him.
4: 6 But a greater grace he gives, therefore he says, “God opposes the arrogant and to the humble he gives grace.”
What is God’s reaction to our self-centeredness? He is not pleased. The self-centeredness is arrogance. Arrogance is idolatry because it causes us to put our own desires in the place that only God deserves. God gives grace to those who are open to his word and are teachable. He does not give the grace to the arrogant. The reason is simple: he gives to those who are willing to receive.
4: 7 Therefore, submit yourselves to God; resist the devil and he will flee from you.
What does submit mean? It is a voluntary action that yields to an authority. Who does the submitting? It is done by the individual believer. God does not force himself on us because in his sovereignty he has given us a choice. James’ advice is that we yield ourselves to God. That is at least a part of what faith is: saying yes, yielding, surrendering, committing.
Can you turn from sin before you turn to God? I doubt that it is possible. It is only when the believer has yielded to the authority of God in his life that he can complete the task by resisting the devil. Resist is literally stand against. It means that we are to take a stand against the devil because the devil has no authority against us. He cannot stand against us because of the Spirit who dwells within us. What does that mean to you?
4: 8 Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, sinners, any purify your hearts, you double-minded men.
Draw near is an encouragement to live in his presence. What James seems to say is that we should do this spiritual exercise so that we can live in close fellowship with him. It is his promise that when we draw near, he will be near. Because he does not force himself on us, he waits for us to draw near. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we missed the blessings of God because we neglected him?
Cleanse your hands and purify your hearts are calls to repentance. In the light of the situation addressed in the verses above, it is no surprise that James makes that call. The believers needed to repent and return to God.
What does cleanse your hands mean? How does it relate to purify your hearts? It seems in the light of earlier statements that James has these in the wrong order. The heart attitude has to be made right in order for the outward indication of cleansing to be accomplished. However, it may be that James uses the cleansing as the action of the believer in drawing near to God so that the heart may be purified.
Why does James call sinning believers double-minded? Is it because they are looking two ways? This is another reference to instability.
4:9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be changed to mourning and the joy to gloom.
Laughter and joy seem to me to be words that reflect the description of the attitudes of those who are seeking the fulfillment of their own pleasures. James’ advice is that the readers come to an appropriate attitude of repentance because of the serious sins they have committed. Wretched, mourn, weep, mourning, and gloom are all words that denote the appropriate response of a believer who has come to the realization of the seriousness of the sin in his life.
4:10 Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up.
Here is another proverb used by James to indicate what the believer’s response should be to God. Instead of an unstable attitude that seeks self-fulfillment and self-lifting, the believer should be open to the teaching and leadership of the Lord. The only true exaltation for the believer is to be found in the context of the faith relationship with Jesus.
XII. 4.11-17 FAITH AND PRESUMPTION, OR Who made you judge?
4:11-12 Do not speak against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother speaks against the law and judges the law; if you judge the law you are not a doer of the law but a judge. One is the lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy; and who are you to judge your neighbor?
Speak against is literally speak down with the implication of speaking evil of, slandering, or defaming. When one speaks against his brother, he has committed an act of condemnation. No one is qualified to do that except God. James gives an indication that slander and judgement are close to idolatry because they assume that the speaker is able to do that which only God can do. The speaker is no longer a doer of the law, but a judge. This attempt to change status is assuming the role of God.
Two things should be remembered by believers who aspire to be judges over others. First, you are not qualified to be the judge. You do not know enough of the facts. Even if you did know the facrs, you are not smart enough to interpret them in the light of eternity. Secondly, you do not have to waste your time being a judge because the real judge is perfectly capable of handling the job.
4.13-16 FAITH AND PRESUMPTION, CONTINUED, OR What do you have to brag about?
4:13-16 Come, now, the one saying, “Today or tomorrow we will go into a certain city and we will spend a year and we will do business and we will make money.” You who are such that you do not know what will happen tomorrow, what your life will be like. You are a vapor, for a short while seen, and then disappearing. Instead of your saying, say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and we will do this or that.” But now, you boast in your pretense; all such boasting is evil.
Why can’t we boast about what we will do? We do not know what the rest of today will bring, much less what tomorrow holds. Boasting about what we will do without taking into consideration the Lord’s will for our life is presumption. Presumption is evil because it does not take God’s will into account. If God has a plan for our lives and we go ahead and make our own plans, it means that we have presumed to be in control. It is both presumptiion and rebellion.
4.17 The one knowing to do good and not doing it, to him it is sin.
This verse reminds me of the prayer I have heard the oldtimers pray all of my life, “Lord, forgive us for our sins of omission and comission. Not only is it wrong to commit rebellion, it is also wrong to fail to do God’s will for us when we know it.
Moo, Pillar, 184.
Moo, Pillar, 191.
XIII. FAITH AND RICHES 5:1-6
5.1-3 The instability of riches
Come now, rich ones, weep and howl over the miseries which are coming on you. Your riches have been made rotten and your outer garments have come to be moth eaten. Your gold and silver have been rusted and their poison will be a witness to you and your flesh will be consumed as fire. You stored up your treasure in the last days!
The attention of James now is turned to the rich. He does not make any attempt here to address these as brothers, so we can assume he is giving a prophetic warning to those outside the church who are oppressing people, especially believers. His advice to them is that they go ahead and begin their weeping and howling because the implication is that judgement is coming. The rich apparently had put their trust in riches rather than in God, and as a result they would find that the objects of their trust would not last. In fact, their riches were already giving evidence of decay.
James may be saying that riches won’t last by using the metaphor of rusted gold and moth eaten garments. He may also be calling them to see the witness of these material possessions that is already being given against them. There is already evidence of decay. At any rate, the material possessions are transitory and cannot last.
The last warning of James in verse three echos the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus advised citizens of the kingdom to lay up treasures in heaven because of the transitory nature of the earthly treasures. James is concluding that the rich have laid up treasures, all right. The problem is that their treasures are not the kind that are eternal and they will serve as a witness against them.
The time frame of the laying up of treasures is in the last days. We are in the last days. We have been so since the coming of Jesus and the provision of redemption through him. James is not saying he knows when the last day will be, but he does see the day approaching.
5:4-6 Injustice toward the poor
Behold the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you have withheld have cried out against you and the shout of those who reaped has entered into the ear of the Lord of Sabaoth. You lived in luxury on the earth and enjoyed self-indulgent pleasure; you nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter. You condemned and murdered the righteous one. He does not resist you.
The money they have hoarded by withholding the fair wages of their workers is already witnessing against them. James makes it clear that the Lord is already involved in their business transactions because he has heard the cry of the oppressed. On the earth is the location of the upper hand of the rich. In a clear warning that things will be made different in the judgement, James reminds the rich that they have had all they wanted at the expense of the poor. However, the fattening of their hearts would do them no eternal good. Day of slaughter could refer to the suffering of the poor, but seems most likely to be a reference to the judgement of the rich in the last day. It is very strong language. It is not clear that James is speaking of actual murder here or if it is a strong metaphor to describe the oppression of the poor. It certainly reflects the attitude that leads to murder if no more. It is also possible that James is referring to actual deaths as a result of the actions or lack of them by the rich toward the poor.
What is the sin here? It is obviously the self-centered focus of the rich. With the focus on self, the rich had no time for God. It is a sin because it is idolatry. The laborers had no rights and no recourse. They depended on the wages of the employers on a daily basis for daily sustenance. The rich, with their focus on themselves, were allowing the poor to go hungry in order to maintain their luxurious lifestyle. The mistreatment of the workers becomes a witness against the rich because God is interested in the situation of the poor. He hears their cry. We should hear what James says about treatment of the poor lest we fall into the same situation of oppression.
XIV. FAITH AND ENDURANCE 5:7-11
Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the appearance of the Lord. Behold, the farmer patiently waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until he gets the early and late rains. You, yourselves, also wait patiently. Make your hearts stable, because the appearance of the Lord is near. Do not groan against one another, brothers, in order that you may not be judged. Behold, the judge stands right before the door! Receive an example, brothers, of the suffering and the forbearance of the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider blessed those who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and you have seen the outcome of the Lord because the Lord is full of pity and compassionate.
James turns his attention now to the oppressed. His advice for them is patience. This patience refers to forbearing. There is some endurance involved, and James mentions that specifically later, but the emphasis here is on “putting up with.” The reason for patience is the appearance of the Lord. The promise of the coming of the Lord is a warning to the rich, but it is a promise of comfort and vindication to the oppresses. The reason for their comfirt is not because they have put up with oppression, but because they have a right relationship with God. The oppression comes because of their relationship and the lack of relationship on the part of the rich.
The example James gives for forbearance is the wait the farmer endures for the fruit of the harvest. These oppressed people were likely farmers and would clearly understand. Farmers have to wait patiently for rain, even in our day, and they are helpless to do anything about its coming. However, they can be sure that both the early rains and the late rains will come.
James returns to the concept of stability for the believers. He advises them to make your hearts stable. That stability can only come in the context of the faith relationship. The motivation for it is the sure, soon, coming of the Lord. We do not know when he is coming, but we can be sure he is coming for us in our lifetime.
Verse nine is an encouragement to the believers not to fall into the trap of attacking one another. He reminds them that they can be patient because the real judge is near. Vindication will come.
Then James gives them two examples of forbearance, but here he adds endurance. Both the prophets and Job had to forbear. They did so with a commitment to remain under the load. James does not identify the prophets, but both Isaiah and Jeremiah come to mind quickly. Job’s case is even better known. James’ point here is that God will make the end come our right because he is merciful and compassionate.
XV. FAITH AND PRAYER 5:12-18
Above all, brothers, do not swear, neither on heaven nor on the earth nor any other oath. Let your yes be yes and your no be no in order that you may not fall under judgement.
Above all probably is not an indication that the most important thing James is saying relates to swearing. It is important, but so are many other things he has said. It is likely that this verse marks the beginning of the closing remarks of James in the letter. He calls the attention of the reader to the conclusion with these words.
The words of James are straightforward and remind us of the teaching of Jesus. Swearing does not refer to vulgarity and slang words. It refers to calling on the name of God or some part of his creation to verify the statement of a person. There is no obvious connection of this statement to the oppression of the poor or the condemnation of the rich. James has changed the subject and includes this and some other short words in conclusion.
Anyone among you suffering hardship, let him pray; anyone in good spirits, let him sing psalms. Anyone who is sick among you, let him call to the elders of the church and let them pray for him, anointing him with olive oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick one and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven to him. Confess, therefore to one another the sins and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is able to accomplish much. Elijah was a man like us, he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Again he prayed and the heavens gave rain and the earth produced fruit.
These final words of James give advice for living in the fellowship. The primary theme is prayer. The statements in verse 13 are self-evident. The one who is in need, prays; the one who is feeling good, sings. There is no magic in either. Nor is there any magic in any of these statements James makes.
Verse 14 contains more imperatives. The sick should depend on the fellowship when they are in need. The leaders of the church have the opportunity and the obligation to care for the sick. The procedure James mentions puzzles us. What does he mean? I think it is not intended to give us a ritual for performing on the sick. If that were so, it would be the only case of it in the New Testament. I think the instructions refer to the ministry the elders perform in the name of the Lord. I doubt that James is instructing them to dab a spot of oil on the sick. It may be that he is speaking of using the oil medicinally, but I am sure that the most important part is the prayer and ministry in the name of the Lord.
The promise in verse 15 is that the Lord will respond to the prayer of his people. Remember, prayer is not a magic wand we wave over God to change Him; neither is it a magic ritual that we perform over people where we see automatic results in response to the ritual. Prayer is communication with God whereby we are seeking to know and do his will. He gives us the privilege of talking to him about the things we are concerned about. He gives us a powerful tool called intercession. However, let us remember that intercession is powerful because God is powerful, not because we can perform magic with out rituals. God is able to heal. He is also able to forgive sins. He is the only one who is able to do both. He does act in intervene in the lives of people to heal and forgive. We also need to remember that the most important thing in sickness, prayer, or any other condition or activity of believers, is that God’s will be done and his name glorified. Would you rather be well, or see God glorified?
Verse 16 gives us the assurance that God is able to work through his people. Remember, however, that the accomplishment of the prayer is not the righteous man; it is the accomplishment of the God who makes the man righteous who lives in relationship with him.
James gave the example of Elijah to say two things. First that Elijah was a man like us. It is a reminder that God uses his ordinary people to accomplish his work. He listens and responds to us. Secondly, prayer is not just an exercise. If is an effective tool God has given to us so that we may be in communication with him and so that we may be involved in his work.
5:19-20 Concluding words
My brothers, if anyone among you strays from the truth, and anyone turns him back, let him know that anyone turning back a sinner from his way of error will save a soul from death and will cover many sins.
Again, these concluding words from James are self-evident. There is nothing new here. The verses assume a faith relationship and the involvement of a believer in the work of the kingdom. People need help with their spiritual lives. We have that opportunity. God is able to work through the activity of his people. We cannot measure the amount of good that is done when we are faithful to respond to the leadership of God in dealing with people.
Moo, Pillar, 231.