The New Testament book of James was written by James (Jesus’ brother, a leader in the early Jerusalem church) to expose hypocritical practices and to teach right Christian behavior. Proof of the reality of the Christian faith is a changed life. It is a fact that genuine faith will inevitably produce good deeds. This is the central theme of Jame’s letter, which is amplified with practical advice on living the Christian life.
The book of James begins by outlining some general characteristics of the Christian life (1:1-27). Next, he exhorts Christians to act justly in society (2:1-13). He follows this practical advice with a theological discourse on the relationship between faith and action (2:14-26). Then James shows the importance of controlling one’s speech (3:1-12). In 3:13-18, James distinguishes two types of wisdom: earthly and heavenly. Then he encourages his readers to turn from evil desires and obey God (4:1-12). James reproves those who trust in their own plans and possessions (4:13-5:6). Finally, he exhorts his readers to be patient with each other (5:7-11), to be straight-forward in their promises (5:12), to pray for each other (5:13-18), and to help each other remain faithful to God (5:19, 20). James can be considered a practical “how to” book on Christian living that confronts Christians, challenges them, and calls them to commitment as those who not only hear the Word, but live the Word.
The Layout of James
This is concentrated in (1:1-27) …
This is concentrated in (2:1-3:12) ….
This is concentrated in (3:13-5:20) … James was written to Jewish Christians who had been, by the time of the letter, scattered throughout the Mediterranean world because of persecution. In their hostile surroundings, they were greviously tempted to let intellectual agreement pass for true faith. James reminds Christians everywhere in every age that genuine faith transforms lives, and encourages them to put faith into action. True faith will produce loving actions toward others, which is what Christ displayed toward us.
Themes: Explanation and Importance
James wants believers not only to hear the truth, but also to do it. He contrasts empty faith (claims without conduct) with faith that works. Commitment to love and serve is evidence of true faith.
Living faith makes a difference. Faith should be more than a statement… it should be an action as well. We must seek ways in which to put our faith to work for the glory of God, and for service to His people.
In the Christian life, there are trials and temptations. Successfully overcoming these adversities produces maturity and strong character.
We must not resent troubles when they come. In praying for wisdom, God will answer by supplying the patience and the strength needed for facing any persecution or adversity.
LAW OF LOVE
We are saved by God’s gracious mercy, and not by keeping the law. However, Christ gave us a special command: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mat. 19:19). We are to love and serve those around us.
Keeping Christ’s law of love shows that our faith is real and vital. When we show love to others, we overcome our own selfishness.
Wisdom shows itself in speech. We will be held responsible for the destructive results of our talk. The wisdom of God that controls the tongue can also control all of our actions.
Accepting God’s wisdom will affect our speech. Our words will convey true humility and lead to peace. We must think before we speak and allow God to give us self-control.
James teaches Christians not to compromise their faith and resulting actions with worldly attitudes about wealth. Because the glory of wealth fades, Christians should store up God’s treasures through sincere service. Christians must not show partiality to the wealthy, nor be prejudiced against the poor.
All of us are accountable for how we use what we have. We should not hoard wealth, but be generous toward others. In addition, we should not be impressed by the wealthy nor look down on those who are poor.
A Closer Look… James 1:1-27
With regard to trials and tribulations that inevitably arrive in life, James stresses a new approach to understanding them:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. (Jas. 1:2-3)
This is a hard concept to embrace, certainly: we definitely tend to not welcome adversity when it arrives! However, James wants his hearers to understand that when trials are faced with joy, this is what results in perseverance, which leads to spiritual completeness and maturity. James continues, and invites attention to an important point:
Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. (Jas. 1:4-5)
In saying that God freely gives wisdom, there is an absolute requirement:
But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does. (Jas. 6-8)
We must believe in the power of God to give us wisdom… He is willing to do this, but we must not have a divided allegiance. If we cannot believe in the absolute goodness of God, and in His power to give us everything necessary for our lives, then nothing else matters!
James says that the wealth of this world means little, if anything at all:
The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business. (Jas. 1:9-11)
James tells what lies ahead for the one who perseveres through trials with joy, trusting in the Lord:
Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. (Jas. 1:12)
Critical is this passage:
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (Jas. 1:13-15)
To tempt is to test, try, prove, or to solicit to evil. What James discusses is a solicitation to evil that comes not from God, but from the inner evil that is within every person. This truth utterly refutes the notion that many have that man is inherently good… man is inherently evil and, if left to his own devices, will indulge evil. When evil desires cause lust to be conceived, it causes sin, and sin that is not put to death by repentance (turning away from) inevitably causes death.
James speaks of the limitless love of God:
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. (Jas. 1-17-18)
God so loved us that he chose us before the creation of the world to be regenerated by the word of truth… His Son Jesus Christ… so that we would become part of the firstfruits that give glory to Him. Can there be any greater gift in the world?
James stresses the importance of correct behavior and the Word of God:
My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God requires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. (Jas. 1:19-21)
But there are sober words of warning:
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does. (Jas. 1:22-25)
The first chapter of James ends with wonderful words of advice, and a concise description of what God requires:
If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (Jas. 1:26-27)
A Closer Look… James 2:1-26
James enjoins his hearers not to be partial to those who are wealthy:
Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ” Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong? If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (Jas. 2:2-9)
What James shows is that it is wrong to show favoritism to the rich for several reasons: 1) it shows one’s value system to be false (v. 3), 2) it is discrimination (v.4), 3) it fails to honor the poor, whom God Himself honors (v. 5), 4) it favors those who oppress you (v. 6), and 5) it is sin (v. 9).
James expounds on sin and the law, explaining clearly their inter-dependent intricacy:
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. (Jas. 2:10-11)
James tells how to both speak and act:
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! (Jas. 2:12-13)
James means that obedience to the commands that God gives brings true freedom from the sinful nature, while disobedience brings true bondage to the sinful nature.
James poses an important question that is central to the letter:
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? (Jas. 2:14)
James does not suggest that Christians are saved by works. What James does suggest is that faith is a living, productive faith in Christ that cannot, by its definition on the life of Christ, be devoid of morality and works. James goes on to give a perfect illustration of this:
Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (Jas. 2:15-17)
James presents and refutes a challenge to the necessity of faith and works:
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder. You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (Jas. 2:18-24)
James ends the chapter on a concise note:
As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (Jas. 2:26)
If you believe in Christ, consider what you are doing in your daily life. In addition to your reliance on God the Father and His Son, do you prove that reliance by addressing the needs of those around you? Do you pray with those who need prayer? Do you greet everyone around you in the same manner, no matter what their worldly status? Do you contribute for the needs of those less fortunate than yourself? Do you tell others, by whatever means that is best for you, the Good News of Jesus Christ? The Christian life is a changed life!
A Closer Look… James 3:1-18
Regarding the tongue, James cites a particular emphasis for those who teach (using the tongue) Christian doctrine, and draws an analogy to illustrate that the tongue, although it may be small, is incredibly powerful:
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. (Jas. 3:1-2)
Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. (Jas. 3:4)
James speaks eloquently of what the tongue is capable of:
Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (Jas. 3:5-6)
For an illustration of the deadliness of the tongue, and how its evil use will be punished, read the words of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5 verse 22.
James says the tongue cannot be tamed:
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (Jas. 3:7-8)
James states what is, and what should not be:
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. (Jas. 3:9-10)
James illustrates what is not true wisdom…
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. (Jas. 3:13-16)
but then illustrates what is true wisdom:
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. (Jas. 3:17-18)
A Closer Look… James 4:1-17
James gets right to the point in the beginning of the chapter; there is a vital lesson for all believers in one of the most powerful passages in Scripture:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covert, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. (Jas. 4:1-2)
God is perfect. As Jesus Christ said, if we who are evil know how to give good things to others, how much more will God, in His perfect nature, give good things to those who ask Him.
Yet, as James has said… and incredibly so… we do not ask God!
It is not a matter of “carte blanche”, however, as James goes on to comment on when asking God does not result in His giving what is requested:
When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (Jas. 4:3)
It is a matter of asking with right motives. When we ask of God, it must be for those things that are on His heart, that He wishes to see accomplished… things that are outside of ourselves. Even then, because no one can know the mind of God and His divine purposes, what we ask for may not be granted. However, asking with right motives gives glory to the One through whom all things are possible.
James is nothing but blunt in making his next point:
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (Jas. 4:4)
James explains this:
Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? (Jas. 4:5)
What this means is that the Holy Spirit, which indwells in and seals those who have confessed that God’s Son Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory that is God the Father, is jealous over us… the Holy Spirit does not want our allegiance to be divided between God and the world. As believers, we are in the world, but we must not be of the world.
James says what the reward of allegiance to God is:
But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (Jas. 4:6)
James points the way:
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (Jas. 4:7-10)
James discusses the practical applications of this advice:
Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor? Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins. (Jas. 4:11-17)
A Closer Look… James 5:1-20
James speaks against the un-Godly, the unsaved… those who have placed wealth before God, and committed all manner of malfeasance in the eyes of God:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you. (Jas. 5:1-6)
James urges patience, a trusting of the Lord that He knows what He is doing, and gives a solemn warning:
Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! (Jas. 5:7-9)
As is evident throughout the letter, James gives an example:
Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (Jas. 5:10-11)
James warns against flippant, profane or blasphemous oaths:
Above all, my brothers, do not swear – not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned. (Jas. 5:12)
James points to the power of prayer:
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and annoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (Jas. 5:1316)
James gives a shining example of this type of deep and enduring faith and belief in the power of prayer:
Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (Jas. 5:17-18)
Finally, James points out what the reward is for bringing someone who has wandered from the truth back to the truth:
My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (Jas. 5:19-20)