So, I decided to start on the book of James. There is tons to mine out of this letter and I have always enjoyed it. It is also very applicable to churches and Christians today. The question of works and faith is one that needs to be addressed. As we look through James we will also look at parallel verses that talk about the same topics. Some of it will get very deep, but stick with me and I will do my best to walk you through it. Above all else take the words of this letter to heart and be doers of the word and not just hearers.
1 James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ: To the 12 tribes in the Dispersion.
Here is James greeting. You may be wondering who on Earth he is writing to, and what does dispersion mean? First off, we need to know which James is writing. You may remember there being a disciple named James in the gospels. He was the brother of John, the disciple Jesus loved and author of several New Testament books. This James was killed by Herod in Acts 12:1-5, before much of the grow the church experienced. Given he died this early, he is not the likely writer. There is another James in the Gospels, the brother of Jesus. In the Gospels, he did not believe Jesus, but when Jesus rose He appeared to James. In fact, in Acts 15 we see that he is an elder in the Jerusalem church and holds authority on par with Peter. This is the James that wrote this letter. Just think about the complete change here. Once he thought Jesus was crazy, but now he refers to himself as a slave to the Lord Jesus.
The next question is who is he writing to? The use of the phrase 12 tribes should make you think of Israel, and certainly his target audience could be the Jews dispersed outside of Israel, as the word dispersion means to disperse, but there is another option. J.A. Motyer and D.A. Carson point out that “The phrase the twelve tribes probably does not mean that the readers were all Jews, but that James thought of them as the people of God, the true Israel, whether they were Jews or Gentiles.” I think this goes a little far. I do think James was striving for an obvious parallel, but I do not think he viewed the church as the new Israel. Therefore, I believe his audience was primarily Jews, but also Gentiles as well. Again, this is still debated among scholars and for our purpose we do not need to dig that deep. James is writing to believers about an issue in the church that needed to be addressed.
2 Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.
Here is where James start, and for many it is a rough place to begin. James points out that we should rejoice in trials, because trials will test our faith and through it produce faith in God. It is like anything else in life. There are hard times that none of us enjoy, but when we look back we can often see the good God worked out of it. James point here is to look ahead, trusting that God will use the current trials to produce more faith. Testing faith leads to endurance. Think of it this way, you are running a mile. At first you struggle and you take a long time to finish, but as you do it each day your muscles develop and gradually your time gets better and you run faster. That’s how trials are, the more you endure and trust God the more you will mature and grow in Him. That is why trials are something to be thankful for, as they help us mature.
5 Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him. 6 But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 An indecisive man is unstable in all his ways.
It is interesting how James continues his thought. He tells us trials will bring faith and endurance, and then he talks about wisdom. This is interesting when you think about James’ words that we will lack nothing as we mature. So, he points out that if you do lack wisdom, you should ask God for it. Even better, he points out God gives it generously and without criticism. God does not look at us at think, “ugh, sure here is some wisdom for you because you were pathetic!” No! He hears and graciously gives. Simply amazing.
However, James puts a condition on it. He comments that if you ask, you must ask without doubting. Now there is a tall order! What does it even mean? Personally, this verse makes me think of Mark 9:20-27. In case you do not have the whole Bible memorized I will tell you what it says. The passage takes place right after Jesus, Peter, James, and John just came down from the transfiguration. There is a whole crowd because of a demon possessed boy that the other disciples could not help. The father looks at Jesus and said, “But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus replies that everything is possible to one who believes. Here the father makes one of the best cases I have ever read. He looks at Jesus and says I do believe, please help my unbelief! And it is then that Jesus drives the demon from the boy. Many of us would assume from the context that the father was still having trouble believing, but he cried out for Jesus to helped him.
With this in mind, how do we look at doubting? Carson points out that doubt in this context does not mean wondering whether or not God will answer the prayer, but that it refers to a doubleminded person. So, what does that mean in English? There is a difference between having doubt and yet believing like the father with Jesus in Mark 9, and doubting whether God really is the way to go. Think about it like this, a believer prayers to God for something. He feels like God does not need to answer or that his request is unworthy and so even though he hopes God will answer, he still has doubt if He will. This believer still expressed faith and has a hope that God will answer. However, another person prays not truly believing God will answer. This ‘believer’ really does not follow the Bible or know God. He may have grown up with God, but he still is unsure of God. When he asks he does not believe in any way. This is the person who is indecisive and unstable in all his ways. They are driven and tossed about by their doubt and it drives them from God, which is why they do not get what they ask for. I know that was a lot to take in, but it is an important point.
9 The brother of humble circumstances should boast in his exaltation, 10 but the one who is rich should boast in his humiliation because he will pass away like a flower of the field. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and dries up the grass; its flower falls off, and its beautiful appearance is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will wither away while pursuing his activities.
Speaking of hard things to grasp, James moves on to humility. Here he points out something that seems backwards to us (a paradox). The brother who is in humble circumstances should boast in his exaltation. What does that mean? It means that one who is not exalted, but lives in poverty without recognition should rejoice because his life is not here. On the flip side one who is rich should only boast in the fact that one day all that he has on this Earth will be gone. If the rich focus on what they have here and now and chase riches, in the end all of it will pass away and mean nothing. The rich man will find it harder to focus on God and eternity than the brother of poor circumstances. This is mainly a perspective on eternity and the here and now. This reminds us to focus on eternity as our home is not here.
12 A man who endures trials is blessed, because when he passes the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him. 13 No one undergoing a trial should say, “I am being tempted by God.” For God is not tempted by evil, and He Himself doesn’t tempt anyone. 14 But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. 15 Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.
Now James brings us back to trials. He talked about how we are blessed when we go through trials, but now he talks about enduring them. The believer who endures trials passes the test and receives the crown of life. After reading that you might be thinking, ‘Does that mean God is the one who tempts us in trials, if it’s all a test?’ As if reading our minds, he follows up his statement by pointing out that we cannot say that God is tempting us. Why cannot God tempt us? Because he is unable to be tempted by evil and therefore He cannot tempt others to evil. Perfect goodness cannot tempt people to do evil. So where does temptation come from? The sad news, from our own desires. At creation this was not the case. However, after the fall our sinful nature twisted our desires and now pushes them from proper enjoyment to indulgence in ways that should never happen. That means our desires, twisted by sin and wishing to be fulfilled in wrong ways, in the source of temptation. That desire draws us from God through enticement, and when it is finally indulged it results in us sinning. Then that sin leads to our death if we do not repent. Through Jesus we have forgiveness and redemption in the face of the death that our sin should bring. We should never lose respect for the sacrifice God made to restore us.
16 Don’t be deceived, my dearly loved brothers. 17 Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning. 18 By His own choice, He gave us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the firstfruits of His creatures.
Again, James seeks to clarify. Not only is God not tempted by evil and does not tempt others, but He is also the source of every perfect gift. Every generous act comes from God. He describes Him as the Father of lights and points out that God does not change or vary. Lastly James highlights that God gave us the gift of salvation of His own choice.
19 My dearly loved brothers, understand this: Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, 20 for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you. 22 But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. 25 But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but one who does good works—this person will be blessed in what he does.
Moving on James brings up more valuable points. First, he tells us to be quick to hear, in this case he is referring to the word of God as you will see in the next verses. He also tells us to be slow to speak. This seems odd until you connect it to the next line which is to be slow to anger. James will bring this up latter by talking about controlling the tongue. The reason he says this is that man’s anger does not accomplish what God desires to accomplish. We must put off all the worldliness that seeks to corrupt and instead to put God’s word, the Bible, in your heart.
Knowing the word is not enough. James points out if you only listen to the word without seeking to apply it to your life, then you deceive yourself. What do deceive yourself about? The scary truth is your faith. You make yourself think you are really a follower of Christ, but your heart is far from Him. John 14:15 says much the same, quoting Jesus saying that if we love Him we will obey His commands. James then uses an analogy (that just means a comparison using like or as). He says one who hear but does not apply the word is like a man who looks into a mirror, but after he leaves the mirror he immediately forgets what he looks like. He contrasts this by saying the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom is not forgetful, but instead applies what they hear in the form of good works. What is the perfect law? Jesus and His commands. Jesus came to fulfill the law and is the perfection of the law. Those who hear and apply God’s words are blessed.
26 If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, then his religion is useless and he deceives himself. 27 Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Now James comes back to speech, this time focusing on the tongue. He points out that if you think of yourself as religious, but cannot control your tongue than your religion is literally of no value. Even worse you once again deceive yourself into thinking you really are following Christ. At this point he tells us what pure religion is: taking care of orphans and widows. This echoes Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:31-40, where He points out that what we do for the least among us is as if we have done for Him. The question is, are we concerned with only knowledge and appearance, like the Pharisees, or are we concern with truly following Christ?
So What Do I Do With This Now?
All the information is great, but what do I do with it now?
1 We learned that trials should be rejoiced over because through endurance they build faith and lead to righteousness in Christ. We know that temptation is not from God as He is not tempted by evil and does not tempt people. We must watch our own desires that have been twisted by sin and not give into the impulses they entice us with. Instead, rejoice remembering that although our sin leads to death, God choose to die to take away our sins. Always remember and appreciate what Jesus did for us.
2 We also learned if we lack wisdom we should ask God. However, you must ask truly believing in who God is and hoping in Him.
3 We learned that our focus should not be on the here and now, but on eternity. If we are gifted with riches, we must not spend our time chasing wealth and other temporary things, but instead pursuing a godly life and seeking to tell others about Jesus. Do not let wealth distract us.
4 We learned we must not just learn the word, but also apply it to our lives. If you do not apply God’s word than you only deceive yourself about following God. You only use religion to look good, but have not been changed by God.
5 Lastly, we learned that pure religion is to care for orphans and widows. Everything we do to the least of people is as if we have done it for Jesus. We must use the resources we have to help those in need as Jesus would.
Well that was long! Sorry for the length, but thank you for sticking through it. Hopefully next Sunday we will start on chapter 2 and when I finish all five chapters I will save them into a PDF for you to download and keep. May God bless you as you seek to apply His word.
G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, and R.T. France. New Bible Commentary. (Intervarsity Press Downers Grove; IL), 1356.