James 1 Commentary

v.1 “James is most likely the brother of Jesus.  More specifically, since Jesus was virgin born, James was his half brother. In Acts this same James appears as the leader of the Jerusalem church (Ac 15:13ff.; 21:18). He describes himself as ‘a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ This word designates a slave, the rightful property of one’s master, though it does not necessarily carry the degrading connotation attached to the word today. James was proud to belong–body and soul–to God and to Jesus Christ.

The letter is addressed to ‘the twelve tribes,’ a designation intended to identify the readers as Jews. They were not residents of Palestine but were ‘scattered among the nations’ as part of the Jewish Dispersion. James’s later designation of his readers as ‘believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ’ (2:1) makes it clear that he means Christian Jews.”[1]

vv.2-4: “The Christians James was addressing were facing trials of many kinds. These trials were not severe persecution (and certainly not illness, for which different terms are used), but rather low-level persecution such as social rejection and economic boycotts. This was happening simply because they were Christians. Although the trials were painful, James calls the believers to rejoice, not because the pain is pleasant but because they should have a perspective which looks beyond the present life to eternal reward. The pure joy is not a present happiness, but joy in anticipation of God’s future.

“The reason they could rejoice is that this testing of their faith would produce perseverance or patience. Perseverance is an important Christian virtue, mentioned often by Jesus (Lk. 8:15; 21:19; cf. Mt. 10:22) and Paul (Rom. 5:3–4; 8:25; 2 Cor. 6:4; 12:12). For those readers who knew their Scripture, as James certainly did, the importance of this virtue is underlined by the fact that Abraham is the first person in Scripture to be tested (Gn. 22:1) and God rewarded his faithfulness. Furthermore, Job was also tested by Satan, and in the stories about Job circulating in first-century Judaism he was the supreme example of perseverance. Surely these Christians could expect a similar reward.

“Perseverance itself, however, has an effect. It is like holding a fine steel sword blade in the fire until it is thoroughly tempered. In this case the sword is the believer, the fire is testing and the ‘tempering’ is that the believer becomes mature and complete, not lacking anything (4). The Greek term for ‘mature’ is also often translated as ‘perfect’. This is the virtue that Noah exhibited in Gn. 6:9 (translated ‘blameless’ in the niv). This is what Jesus intends when he calls his followers to be ‘perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt. 5:48). It indicates a character like God’s. This type of maturity is produced by holding fast to the faith and Christian virtue while in the fire of persecution. The impurities in one’s character will be burned off. The end result will be not just maturity, but completeness, which means that not a single part of a God-like character will be lacking. If this is the end result of the readers’ trials, difficult as they may be, there is indeed something to rejoice about.”[2]

vv.5-8: “But what is a person supposed to do if they are not ‘mature and complete’? What if one fears failing the test? Paul’s answer would have been that they should live, or be led, by the Spirit (e.g. Gal. 5:16–18, 25). James’s answer is for them to ask God for wisdom, because divine wisdom is the power which James believes counteracts evil in human life. Such a prayer would not be useless, for God is a generous giver. Nor is his generosity hemmed in by a critical spirit: ‘What? You again! What did you do with what I gave you last time?’ Far from having that attitude, God simply gives to all who ask, time after time.

“Yet there is one requirement if we are to receive wisdom: the asking must flow out of faith in, or rather commitment to, God. The ‘doubting’ James warns about is not that of a person who wonders whether or not God will answer this particular request, or that of an introspective doubter who struggles with faith. Instead it is that of a person who is double-minded, a phrase with a close equivalent in the Psalms (Ps. 12:1–2), and which is the opposite of trusting God from one’s whole heart (Dt. 6:5; 8:3). In other words, this kind of a doubter is the person who is not wholly committed to God, but ‘plays safe’ by praying. Their real interest is in advancement in this world, but they also want to enjoy some of God’s blessings now and go to heaven when they die. Such a person will not get wisdom, James says. In fact, such a person will not receive anything at all from God.”[3]

vv.9-11: “Christianity brings to the rich man a new sense of self-abasement. The great peril of riches is that they tend to give a man a false sense of security. He feels that he is safe; he feels that he has the resources to cope with anything and to buy himself out of any situation he may wish to avoid.

“James draws a vivid picture, very familiar to the people of Palestine. In the desert places, if there is a shower of rain, the thin green shoots of grass will sprout; but one day’s burning sunshine will make them vanish as if they had never been. The scorching heat is the kaus?n. The kaus?n was the south-east wind, the Simoon. It came straight from the deserts and burst on Palestine like a blast of hot air when an oven door is opened. In an hour it could wipe out all vegetation.

“This is a picture of what a life dependent on riches can be like. A man who puts his trust in riches is trusting in things which the chances and changes of life can take from him at any moment. Life itself is uncertain. At the back of James’s mind there is Isaiah’s picture: ‘All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people is grass’ (Isaiah 40:6, 7; cp. Psalm 103:15).

“James’s point is this. If life is so uncertain and man so vulnerable, calamity and disaster may come at any moment. Since that is so, a man is a fool to put all his trust in things—like wealth—which he may lose at any moment. He is only wise if he puts his trust in things which he cannot lose.

“So, then, James urges the rich to cease to put their trust in that which their own power can amass. He urges them to admit their essential human helplessness and humbly to put their trust in God, who alone can give the things which abide for ever.”[4]

vv.12-15: “James returns to the theme of testing by giving a promise. Blessed or happy is the person who perseveres under trial. How can that person be counted happy? They cannot be from the world’s perspective, but they can from God’s. God has promised a crown of life, that is life itself (as in Rev. 2:10), for such a person has shown that they do indeed love God by standing the test. This is like Abraham, who persevered in the test and then received God’s promise (Gn. 22:15–18), for God can say, ‘Now I know that you fear God’ (Gn. 22:12).

“Not everyone will prove genuine when tested. Those who fail or who want to give in when tested may do so by blaming God: ‘God is tempting me’. (The terms ‘test’, ‘trial’, and ‘tempt’ are all the same word in Greek.) This is precisely what Israel did in the wilderness; they complained that it was God’s fault and blamed him (Ex. 17:2, 7). In fact, they did this ten times (Nu. 14:22). The believers James was writing to are not to do this, he says, because first, ‘God ought not to be put to the test by sinful people!’ (This is a better translation than God cannot be tempted by evil.) This is precisely what was taught to Israel in Dt. 6:16.

“The second reason why the believers are not to blame God is because he does not tempt anyone. How could James have written that when Gn. 22:1 says ‘God tested [or tempted, again the same word] Abraham’? The answer is that beginning in the OT and continuing in Judaism between the testaments such stories as those of Abraham were interpreted as having left out the real cause of the test, the devil. (E.g. 2 Sa. 24:1 says, ‘[God] incited David’, while 1 Ch. 21:1 says, ‘Satan … incited David’.) Therefore in the inter-testamental book Jubilees the Gn. 22 account about Abraham is recast in a form similar to Job. Because of this interpretive tradition in his world, James, who in 2:21 cites Gn. 22 explicitly, could say that the real cause of testing is not God. The OT story is true, but it is a simplified form of reality.

“Yet James does not want people to blame the devil either (although he mentions him in 4:7), but to take the responsibility squarely on their own shoulders. It is desire within one which mades the test a test. This desire is what the Jews called the ‘evil impulse’ in people, or what psychologists call ‘drives’ or what Paul in Rom. 7 calls ‘sin’; it is quite simply the undifferentiated ‘I want’. Like a prostitute it entices, and gives birth to sin, and sin ends the process with death.”[5]

vv.16-18: “In contrast to the evil things brought about by desire, God will only give a good and perfect gift. One example of such a good gift is the wisdom mentioned in v 5, the parallel section. In v 17 God is pictured as the Father of the heavenly lights or the Creator of the universe. But unlike the moon and other heavenly lights which he created, God himself does not change. He is always the same. So if he gives good today, he will not give evil tomorrow. His goodness is seen in that he chose (it was not an accident) to give us birth, meaning new birth, by means of the gospel (the word of truth). His goal was to make us firstfruits of all he created. The firstfruits were viewed as the best of the harvest, so God is making redeemed human beings the apex of all creation. Here we see another chain: God—word of truth—birth. Desire and the devil lead to death. God, by way of contrast, produces life.”[6]

vv.19-27: “What will be the result of this life or wisdom from God? It will be a controlled tongue. Human anger, whether called ‘righteous anger’ or not, does not produce God’s type of righteousness. Therefore, the wise person will be slow to open his or her mouth and even slower to express anger. Indeed, James argues, a humble acceptance of the gospel (the word planted in you) will mean that one will get rid of all angry expression (as 3:9 and 4:1–2 show, it is the angry outburst, not the inward feeling, which is the issue) and all other types of evil, even if they are fully accepted by the world.

“James, moving to his third topic, points out that it is not enough simply to know Scripture or godly teaching. Knowledge alone is useless. It is even worse than useless, for the person who thinks that knowing the Bible makes one godly is self-deceived. Instead, it is obeying the teaching that makes one godly. What is the source of teaching for James? The perfect law that gives freedom is what one should obey, and that is the OT as interpreted by Jesus along with Jesus’ other teachings. As Jesus also said, it is not the hearing of his words but the obeying of them that brings a blessing (Mt. 7:24–27).

“This means that one can tell truly godly people by their lifestyle. If people have uncontrolled tongues (and so are often exploding in anger or quarrelling), all of their religious practices are worthless. They really do not love God in their hearts. The type of piety which God looks for has two characteristics, which are the two sides of the same coin. First, it cares for the poor (the orphans and widows are two of the four major categories of the poor in the OT). Secondly, it is not polluted by the world, which means that it is not seeking security or advancement in terms of what is valued by people in the world. Because it does not love the world, there is no need to hold on to money. Therefore such people can be generous and give freely.”[7]

[1] Frank E. Gaebelein, Gen. Ed. Expositor’s Bible Commentary CD (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) 1:1.

niv niv New International Version

[2] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Jas 1:2–4). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.

[3] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Jas 1:5–8). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.

[4] The letters of James and Peter. 2000 (W. Barclay, lecturer in the University of Glasgow, Ed.). The Daily study Bible series, Rev. ed. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

[5] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Jas 1:12–15). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.

[6] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Jas 1:16–18). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.

[7] Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Jas 1:19–27). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.

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