August 31, 2018
General Remarks on James
James gave us one of the earliest of the New Testament writings, dating from around the year 48 A.D. Its audience is clearly Jewish and its purpose is to instruct Jewish Christians, probably including those who fled Jerusalem during the persecution that followed the stoning of Stephen in Acts 8:1 (Jas. 1:1). The author identifies himself as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1), but who is James? There are three posibilites. First is James the Apostle. He is the brother of the Apostle John, and one of the inner circle of the Apostles. It would be surprising to have nothing from him in the New Testament. Second is James the son of Alphaeus, who is also an Apostle (Mt. 10:3). Bible students often refer to him as James the great to distinguish him from the third James, often called James the less. James the less is the brother of our Lord and the bishop of Jerusalem. Though not an Apostle, James the less is held in high regard by the Apostles, as seen in Acts 15:13-30. Since the early Church believed only books written or directly overseen by the Apostles were Scripture from God, it is highly unlikely that James the less is the author of the book of James. The son of Alphaeus is also not the author, for he would have identified himself to avoid being confused with James the Apostle. That leaves the Apostle James as the most likely human author of the book of James. The Apostle was executed by Herod shortly after writing it (Acts 12:1, 2).
The short book of James encourages Christians to resist temptation and live according to the will of God expressed in Scripture. This encouragement is repeated and enlarged in James 4:7 and 8. James gives a critically important picture of what God is doing in the lives of His people. God is not trying to give us lives of ease: He is forming us into new people, new beings who are being renewed in every aspect of our being. He is sanctifying us, and preparing us to dwell in Heaven with Him forever. In this process He is weaning us from earth and leading us to value, love, and trust Him more and more.
In short, His purpose is to develop Godliness in us. As James wrote, He is working to make us "perfect and entire, wanting nothing" (4). Our trials are often the tools He uses to increase us in Godliness. Every trial is a temptation to desert God and return to sin. Every temptation is an opportunity to choose God over self; to choose to follow Him in faith, or to run back to sin. Thus, in temptation, our faith is exercised. It is tried, it is tested, it is made stronger as the body is made stronger with physical exercise. Perseverance, or, endurance, is the kind of patience this trying of faith produces in us. And those who persevere become more faithful and more Godly. Paul may have been thinking of James 1:2-15 when he wrote Romans 5:1-4. The pattern in both passages is the same: tribulation works patience, patience produces experience, and experience produces hope. The end result of faithfulness in trouble is Godliness, and Godliness is the goal of God for His people.
The key to the second part of James 1 is clearly stated in verse 12. In fact, "Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life.” That is also the foundational message of James. The temptations of verse 12, like those in verse 2, include the temptations to sin, and the trials of life, such as illness. James probably shocks his readers when he writes, “Blessed is the man who endureth temptation.” Like us, the early Christians would consider such things as something to be avoided, but James calls them blessings from God, because those who endure temptation will receive the crown of life, which is eternal rest and peace with God in Heaven.
Verses 13-16 picture the progress of sin from temptation to action. After affirming that God does not tempt or lead us in to evil, James tells us that our own lusts (the flesh) draw or lead us into temptation. We are then enticed to fulfill our lusts, even by ungodly means. So sin is conceived in lust and born of lust, and death is born of sin.
By contrast, God gives good and perfect gifts. Note the line of thinking here; God does not tempt us. Instead He gives all good and perfect gifts. Sin leads to death, but God gives the crown of life. There is no variation in God. He is good throughout, and He begat us, or, caused us to be born again, by His word, that we may be the first-fruits of His creatures (17, 18).
Finally, James draws two practical conclusions from his statement in verse12. First, let us be swift to hear, which is to receive instruction in Godliness, and slow to speak and wrath, which is to give in to pride and self-importance, and does not work Godliness in us. Second, we are to lay aside the lusts and pride that lead us into temptation, and receive with meekness the word which is able to save our souls.
Verse 21 tells us what we all know, that hearing the Word of God is not enough. Those who allow the Scriptures to move them to faith and faithfulness are the ones who benefit from the Word. Not surprisingly, James pictures two kinds of people. One consists of the people who merely hear the word. The second is of people who hear and do the word.
Those who merely hear the Word will have different reactions. Some will dismiss it entirely to live in unbelief. They may be belligerently anti-Christianity, or they may be highly respectful of it. Either way, the Word has no home in their lives. But these are not the people to whom James writes. He writes to professing Christians in the visible Church, and he writes to encourage them to live for Christ as He lived, and died, for them. Then, as now, many, maybe even most, who heard the Gospel and made some kind of response of faith in Christ, never really understood the Gospel, and never really had Biblical faith. They may have changed some of their ideas about religion, started attending Church, and maybe even put away some of their more obvious sins; but they never really made any attempt to offer themselves as living sacrifices to God, or to embrace God as their God and His ways as their ways. Like the Laodiceans of Revelation 3:15, they were neither cold nor hot about Christ. So they did their religious "duties" but remained unchanged in their hearts. They did not become Christians, they just added a little Christian flavouring to their lives. James describes them as looking into a mirror, but forgetting what they see as soon as they leave it (23-24). The Word, that is, the Bible, tells us about ourselves as much as it tells us about God. It tells us of our complete alienation from God due our willful sin. It tells us we are under God's wrath and without excuse, and that our very best works and deeds are but filthy rags compared to Gods' consuming perfection. It tells us of God's love, love so great it compelled Him to become a man and live and die to reconcile us to Himself. It tells us that He offers reconciliation to all who will accept it by faith and return to Him. Yet, those who are hearers only, see themselves in the mirror and walk away unmoved and unchanged.
The Word is described in verse 25 as the "prefect law of liberty.” It is those who "continue therein" who are the blessed, or, as we might say, the saved. To continue therein is to receive Christ in Biblical faith. It is also to continually confess and repent of sin, and to continually turn to a life of love for and obedience to God. To be blessed is to receive the gift of forgiveness and salvation, and the fruits of righteousness.
The chapter closes with an example of hearers and doers in real life (26-17). The hearers only do not bridle their tongues. Instead of being slow to speak (19) they are swift to speak and bold about voicing their views and desires. Their tongues are not under the control of God, showing that their lives are not either. We will see more of what this means in chapter 3.
The doers of the word are characterised by kindness, compassion, and charity. Visiting orphans and widows in their distress, refers to actively working to relieve their sufferings. Rather than causing hurt and strife by their words, doers of the Word bring balm and relief by their actions. The stinging words of those with unbridled tongues come from a heart ruled by self importance. The kindness that speaks louder than words comes from a heart ruled by the love of Christ.
It is not difficult to grasp the meaning of the words, "have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons." Nor it is difficult to grasp the fact that the Church often, maybe, usually holds the faith with respect of persons. The Love of Christ is for all. The call of the Gospel, and its offer of forgiveness is for all. Nationality, gender, race, and, especially, money, mean nothing to Christ. In His eyes we are all poor, sick, and dirty until we come to Him for riches, health, and cleansing in our souls. "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 5:3).
Quite obviously, not all wealthy people are wicked oppressors, and not all poor people are Godly or victims. James is not saying they are. He is saying that our concern, as the Church, is for all people alike. There is a saying, "The ground is level at the foot of the cross." It is also level in the Church. If we create distinctions, it is we who err (9-13).
Many have thought James teaches salvation by works instead of salvation by grace. Verses 21-25 are the primary verses upon which they base their view. But the point James makes is not that Abraham and Rahab earned Heaven by doing good works; it is that real, Biblical faith results in good works as naturally as being an apple tree results in apples. James is writing about what Paul calls being transformed (Rom. 12:2), becoming a new kind of creature (2 Cor. 5:17), and sanctification, or becoming more Godly (1 Thess. 4:3). It is the opposite of the mere assent to facts and doctrines, which even devils know (19). It is being moved out of knowing about God and into actively doing His will.
If our faith does not express itself in good works, our faith is dead (17-20). In other words, if your faith (assent to Christian doctrine) does not move you to faithfulness (seeking to live a Godly life), it is not Christian faith in the Biblical sense at all. It is a corpse, a body without a soul (26). So James is trying to tell us to move beyond intellectual belief to love and obedience of God. We do not do good works in order to be saved; we do them because we are saved.
James returns to the subject of bridling the tongue. Why does he spend so much time on this subject? Because the essence of a person is expressed in his words. Remember James is writing about the way of life of people who have truly embraced Christ as their Master and Saviour. He is writing about what Paul called being sanctified and transformed into new people. He is writing about living a faithful life (see Jas. 2:14-26 and accompanying notes). The tongue (mouth, words) of a person who is becoming more Godly will express the spirit of Godliness. His mouth is a fountain of sweet water (12). His conversation shows wisdom (13) and meekness. "Conversation" as used in verse13 refers to our whole way and pattern of life, not just our words. The Christian's words express his way and pattern of living for Christ, while the unGodly person's express his way and pattern of living in wickedness. In short, our words express our character.
There is also a sense in which our words, and thoughts, form and shape our character. "For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Prov. 23:7). Therefore, if we make an effort to control our words, we are also making an effort to control, and, therefore, change, our character. If, instead of cursing, we bless with our words, we also form a blessing character. We can influence the way we live, and we can develop our character. If we are not making a good faith effort to do so, we are simply allowing the bitterness, envying, and strife of sin to rule us, and if we are allowing sin to rule us, and, at the same time, calling ourselves Christians, we are lying against the truth (14). This is one reason why daily Scripture reading is so important. By spending time in the Bible we are attempting to let its words shape our thoughts and characters. We are not simply trying to gain knowledge about the Bible, though such knowledge is very important. We are certainly not merely doing a religious duty, nor are we simply "spending time with God." We are letting the Bible change, and renew our minds. We are letting it shape our values and goals and life-views. We are seeking to become more like Christ in our minds, for that will cause us to be more like Him in our actions and our being. Thus, bringing our minds into contact with the wisdom that is from above through daily Bible reading, produces in us peace, gentleness, mercy, and the fruit of righteousness (18).
James is still writing about Godliness in the life habits and life patterns of Christian people. Elaborating on his statements in verses 2:17 and 18, his point is that real, Biblical faith changes a person and that change is visible, or, expressed, in his actions. By contrast, a false faith, one that is merely an intellectual assent to doctrinal propositions, makes no change in a person. It leaves him in the same old sinful inclinations he was in before he came to believe the propositions. Such unchanged people still lust and war over the things of the world (1-2). Their prayers are not prayers of faith that trust God to supply their needs, they are prayers that God will grant them the things for which their hearts lust, so they may consume them in gratification of those lusts (1). Unlike Abraham, who was called the friend of God 2:23, their friendship is with the world, and they are at enmity with God (4). It is no wonder, then, that God resists them (6) for they resist God.
Thus James encourages his readers to submit to God and resist the devil (7). Rather than heedlessly chasing the world, James asks them to draw nigh unto God (8) with the same fervour and devotion with which they formerly sought the world. He promises God will draw nigh to those who seek Him. Verse 9 means to turn completely away from the former things. Let those things for which they were formerly prepared to fight, now become the cause for mourning and heaviness. No more are they to laugh (find pleasure) in sin, but to be filled with sorrow over it. To be humble in the sight of the Lord is to mourn over sin; to confess and turn away from it, and to turn to God as Lord and God. Those who do so will be lifted up out of their degradation and condemnation. They will be exalted to Heaven forever (10) by the Lawgiver (Christ) who is also the Saviour (11-12).
Continuing to show the difference between "doers of the word" and "hearers only," verses 13-17 show that hearers are primarily concerned about money and the comforts and pleasures it can buy. They are worldly rather than Godly. James is not talking here about the openly profane, or about those who use questionable tactics in business. He is talking about people who profess Christ, but whose faith does not move them toward God and Godliness. These people claim to be Christians, but go through life with little care or thought for God. Though such people may be very moral, James says their actions are evil (16). In this uncertain world, goods, and even their lives can be taken away from them at any moment (14), therefore they should be more concerned about knowing God and seeking Him in all of life, including their business ventures (15). They know this, yet do not practice it, thus, they sin (17).
James turns to the perils of wealth and the evil into which it has led many people. The point of verses 1-3 is that wealth is easily lost. Verses 4-6 show what evil men do to obtain and keep wealth. 7-11 call Christians, and those who have been "hearers only" to turn their attention to the Lord, waiting for the promises of God as the farmer waits for the rains and the harvest (7-8). He gives the Old Testament prophets as examples of patient faith, who endured rejection and persecution from their own people, just as Jewish Christians are experiencing in James' time (10). He calls Job to their minds as an example of one who, though suffering grief and poverty, remained faithful to God, thus, possessing the greater wealth of God's love and mercy (11). James is saying that the Jews who were suffering persecution and loss for the sake of Christ also possess wealth that cannot perish, and even death can't steal, through the tender mercy of the Lord.
James ends his epistle with several important exhortations. Swearing, in verse 12 does not refer to "cussing," though cussing is an obviously evil thing. It refers to attempting to make an oath more valid by swearing in the name of God, Heaven, angels, or holy things which we have no power to bind by our promises. Such "vain and rash swearing is forbidden by our Lord Jesus Christ, and James his Apostle. Accordingly, many churches ask people at baptism and confirmation to promise, rather than swear, and, rather than asking them to attempt to obligate God or anyone else, we simply ask them to respond with "I will, by God's help." This answer is yea or nay. "By God's help" is not an oath in the name of God, but a prayerful confession that the help of God is necessary to enable us to keep our obligation.
Verse 13, though short, gives important directions for much of what happens to us in life. We are often afflicted. At such times let us seek God in prayer. When we are merry, let us sing Psalms to God in our joy. Thus, in joy or sorrow, we come to God. Often, even Christians, facing sorrow seek relief in things other than God. Rather than prayer, and seeking to know the Biblical way to deal with our troubles, we think a vacation or a new toy will cheer us up. But perhaps the Biblical answer may be to persevere and honour God even in our sorrows. Likewise, in joy, people often forget about God instead of remembering and thanking Him.
Verses14-16 do not guarantee physical healing every time we get sick. They do remind us that the prayers of our friends, and, especially, our ministers, are as important in the treatment of illness as the medications and advice of physicians. We are to call for the minister of the church with as much urgency as we call for the physician. His prayers, which avail much (16), are an important part of the means of our cure. Our own prayers are also important, and chief among them is the prayer of confession. This means we are not simply praying that God will heal us so we can go back to business as usual. We are asking that life in the future will be more Godly. We are asking not only to be delivered from suffering, but also, even, especially, that we may serve God more fully in the future.
Verses 17 and 18 continue to urge the sick, and all of us, to pray by reminding us that God answers prayer. If God answered Elijah's prayer to withhold the rain for three years, we may believe He will answer the prayers of those who call upon Him today.
Verses 19 and 20 show that our responsibility for Christian compassion and love requires us to learn and grow from one another. This includes the sermons, liturgies, and Bible studies of the Church, and also our daily discourse with one another. Our conversation should be edifying to our hearers, building them up in the faith. We should also be open to the wisdom of others, who may be able to see things we have overlooked. This does not mean we are to become busy bodies, looking for faults in others and imposing our advice on them. Remember James' earlier warning to be swift to hear and slow to speak. It means that our actions and conversation should be helpful to others by pointing them toward Christ, His Word, and His Church. If God in His grace uses you to help turn someone from error or sin, rejoice, for God has saved a soul from death and forgiven a multitude of sins.