The Book of James was written from a pastors perspective and it focuses more on ethics than any other book of the New Testament. The letter contains teachings based on the law as understood through the life and teachings of Jesus. James also reflects Jesus’ own teachings, especially as recorded in the sermon on the Mount and the sermon on the plain. Many scholars believe Jesus’s half brother James wrote this letter. James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. This letter lacks any personal greetings to individuals and is addressed to the twelve tribes of the diaspora. The diaspora is the Jewish people living outside Israel. This was probably a circular letter intended for Jewish believers throughout the Roman world. James’ purpose was to encourage his readers who were not only scattered but also largely poor and oppressed. James writes with a very strong moral tone, filled with exhortations to live in a pious and upright manner. Here are some themes to look for as you read. First of all, genuine faith. James’s statement that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone does not contradict Paul’s teaching that salvation is based solely in faith. A faith that knows for certain that God exists but fails to trust Him or to manifest itself in a transformed life is not faith at all. Second is good deeds. “Deeds” in the Book of James is another term for fruit. These are acts of Christian love that inevitably accompany a genuine faith. Third comes genuine wisdom. James contrasted two kinds of wisdom. False wisdom produces envy and selfish ambition where as genuine wisdom results in humility, deeds of mercy and righteousness conduct. Wisdom helps Christians control their speech and promotes peace, consideration, submission, mercy, good deeds, impartiality, and sincerity.
By identifying his readers as the twelve tribes James reaffirms Christianity’s continuity with Israel’s heritage. The exile had dispersed the twelve tribes but Jewish interpreters looked forward to God reuniting them. Christ has spiritually brought an end to Israel’s exile and reunited the tribes. James begins his book by teaching about faith and endurance. This will be a recurring theme throughout the book. Failure to endure is to wander from the truth and that requires being saved from death. Wisdom is also a recurring theme. There were many trials in the first century for the new church and the people were tested. This is the same word that is used for making sure coins were genuine. The aim of testing was not to destroy but to purge and refine. If a believer endures a trial they will be perfect, meaning they have reached the end and they are complete. The wisdom God gives is not necessarily information on how to get out of trouble but instead insight on how to learn from one’s difficulties. It is also not info about how to avoid times of testing but instead a new perspective on trials. The wisdom of God begins with a genuine reverence for the Almighty and a steadfast confidence that God controls all circumstances, guiding them to His good purposes. The person who doubts is one whose loyalty is divided between God and the world. They are literally double minded. James emphasized the need for confidence in God alone. Poverty and wealth are also a recurring theme. James does not promise material wealth to the righteous poor but instead he announces a future reversal in heaven. In the New Testament boasting is usually viewed negatively but here it means boasting about what God has done. James uses irony to describe the wealthy who boast and their fate when they elevate themselves above the poor and vulnerable people.
For the rest of the chapter, verses 12-27, James revisits the same three topics we have just seen. But, he has added a new dimension them. External testing becomes internal temptation. The need for wisdom is related to controlling angry speech, and poverty and wealth relate to the need to act on God’s word. The believer who endures trials demonstrates that they love Jesus and therefore will receive the crown of life at the judgement seat of Christ. The Bible describes the believers reward under various vivid images such as precious metals, garments, and crowns. Those who love Jesus are faithful and obedient. Verse 13 is called a diatribe. It is an Ancient Greek rhetorical technique where an imaginary opponent presents a contrary opinion. This way he is able to voice the readers possible objection and immediately refute it. Enticement to sin does not ever come from God. God will never deliberately lead a person to commit sin because trust would not only go against His nature but it would be opposed to His purpose of molding His creation to His Holy image. “Drawn away and enticed” express the intensity that desire causes an individual to be lured away or trapped. When evil desires conceive, they give birth to sinful actions. And when that infant sin is allowed to grow to full maturity it gives birth to death in opposition to the crown of life.
God is the father of lights since He created everything in the heavens. In contrast to the moving lights in heaven, God never changes or casts a shifting shadow. God’s true word is the Good News. The imagery of a mother giving birth shows the full scope of God’s parental love for His children. We are His prized possessions and Christians are considered examples of the ultimate restoration of all creation. If a believer gets angry in difficult circumstances then the practical righteousness of God will not be evident in their lives. When someone wrongs us the natural response is to retaliate, at least verbally, but this response does not glorify God. However, holding one’s tongue, trying to understand the other persons position, and leaving the vindication to God demonstrates Godly love in tense situations. Getting rid of the filth in our lives is literally like taking off dirty clothing. We are called to live humbly and accept what God has planted in our lives. James emphasized that Christians are called to respond to a word that God Himself has put within our very beings. This fulfills Jeremiah 31:31-34. When James uses the soul here he is referring to the whole person. Reading the scriptures was an important part of worship but since most people could not read and copies were not readily available, they listened to the readings in public worship. James tells all of us that we can’t just be listeners though. We also must receive God’s word and apply it to and in our daily lives. Forgetting what you look like had nothing to do with the poor quality of the mirror. It had everything to do with the inattention of the viewer. God’s word gives us new birth and salvation but it also demands that we do what it says. James is concerned about controlling one’s tongue. It is literally bridling your tongue. James uses the graphic image of the bridle in a horses mouth to say that people’s ability to control their tongue indicates the condition of their heart and the whole direction of their life. Orphans and widows were among the most unprotected and needy classes in ancient societies. Pure religion not only gives material goods for the relief of the distressed. It also oversees their care. These folks were dependent on the care of others. In James the world always stands in opposition to God.
James begins chapter two with a realistic illustration to enforce his prohibition against favoring the wealthy. He began this chapter with an affectionate greeting which served to solicit their loyal response. He contrasts the glory of the Lord with that of a well dressed man. Christ’s glory included His resurrection, exaltation, and second coming. When people gathered there was a pecking order. The fancy clothes and expensive jewelry of the rich in contrast with the dirty clothes of the poor symbolize the contrast In socioeconomic status. It was and is natural to give attention to wealthy people because of their political power, social status, and potential generosity as patrons. By serving and publicly honoring the wealthy the church could gain whatever economic benefits they wished to give. But James warned that this favoritism was also discrimination and that reflected evil motives, a division between loyalty to God, and a desire for the benefits of worldly wealth. He called for the people to listen to him, and then he presented his argument. God had chosen the poor and that is reflected in the Old Testament and the ministries of both Jesus and Paul. This concern was also emphasized in the Jerusalem church which James led. The kingdom of God was central to the teaching of Jesus. He already rules from His place at the right hand of the Father but His kingdom will be fully realized only when the Son of Man comes. The name we bear is Jesus Christ. It is a sign of ownership, pronounced at the time of conversion and baptisms.
Christians are to obey the Royal law, just as Jesus fulfilled the law by His coming and His teaching. The law is called Royal because it belongs to the kingdom and was articulated by our glorious Lord. And then James changed from a general reference to the law to a specific written commandment from the holiness code, Leviticus 19. It specifies how our love for God is to be expressed in relationships with other people: “love your neighbor as yourself.” Favoritism violates the command to love our neighbor. God does not allow selective obedience. We cannot choose the parts of the law that are to our own liking and disregard the rest. Some of the Pharisees were guilty of this. Sin is a violation of the perfect righteousness of God, who is the lawgiver. James is saying that the whole divine law has to be accepted as an expression of God’s will from His people and the violation of even one commandment separates an individual from God and His purposes. Believers will be judged by the law of liberty, which is the law of love. Believers who do not practice partiality, but who practice love and mercy will triumph at the judgement seat. Those who have not shown mercy will not receive mercy. James wrote to Christians who needed to be stimulated to produce actions that should arise from genuine faith. Paul also made the same point but often criticized people for trying to base their relationship with God on what they do. James gave an illustration of faith that is useless. A brothers or sister in faith had no food or clothing. In first century Palestine and the Roman world in general many were poverty stricken and lacked the bare necessities. For a believer who could help but only wished the person well was an example of useless faith. Perhaps the believer assumed that God would provide, thinking that simply expressing faith was enough. But without our participation the well wishes mean nothing. We are called to be salt and light, the hands and feet of Jesus. That means we are called to do something. Faith without works is dead.
James also demonstrated the futility of believing that something is true without acting upon it. Then he presented another diatribe. One person may have the gift of faith while another person has the gift of works. They may say they have faith and that there is only one God but even the demons say that. Demons do not love God and their kind of love does not lead to submission, or obedience. Instead it leads to hatred, rebellion, and disobedience. James called the person who separates faith and works foolish, meaning empty headed. And then James demonstrated from scripture that genuine faith finds expression in action. Abraham was not justified by his actions alone. His faith and actions worked together and this describes the full scope of Abraham’s faithful response to God throughout his life. James saw the offering of Isaac as the fulfillment of Abraham’s pledge of faith and God’s declaration of Abraham’s righteousness. He was even called the friend of God. James emphasized the nature of faith as a relationship of undivided loyalty. We are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone. That is, not like the demons who merely believe something is true, but by a belief that results in generous deeds like those of God Himself. Though some have thought that this teaching contradicts what Paul taught, it does not. Paul does not speak against good deeds themselves, but about trying to receive forgiveness of sins because of good deeds. Just as Paul understands that love and generosity necessarily issue from true faith, so also James knows that good deeds can result only from authentic faith that results in a commitment to God. He presented Rahab the prostitute as his second example of good works that must accompany genuine faith. She declared her belief that the Lord God of Israel was the only God and her faith was made perfect by her actions when she provided hospitality and a means of escape to the Israelite spies. Good works are as necessary to faith as breath is to a physical body. We cannot have one without the other.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W