David Guzik Commentary on the Bible
James 1:1-27 - A LIVING FAITH IN TRIALS AND TEMPTATIONS
A. Trials and wisdom.
1. (James 1:1) Greetings from James.
James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings.
a. James: There are several men named James mentioned in the New Testament, but reliable tradition assigns this book to the one called James the Just - the half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:15), and brother of Jude (Jude 1:1), who led the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13).
i. Other men named James include:
· James, brother of John and son of Zebedee, the first apostle martyred, also known as James the Less (Matthew 10:2, Mark 15:40, Acts 12:2).
· James the son of Alphaeus, another of the twelve disciples (Matthew 10:3).
· James, the father of the “other” apostle Judas (Luke 6:16).
ii. An early history of the church says that James was such a man of prayer that his knees had large, thick calluses, making them look like the knees of a camel. It also says that James was martyred in Jerusalem by being pushed from a high point of the temple. Yet the fall did not kill him and on the ground he was beaten to death as he prayed for his attackers.
b. A bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ: Knowing that this James was the half-brother of Jesus makes his self-introduction all the more significant. He does not proclaim himself “the brother of Jesus”, but only a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus was not only James’ brother; more importantly, Jesus was his Lord.
i. Bondservant is an important word. It translates the ancient Greek word doulos: “A slave, a bondservant, one who is in a permanent relation of servitude to another . . . Among the Greeks, with their strong sense of personal freedom, the term carried a degrading connotation.” (Hiebert)
ii. Lord is an important word. It translates the ancient Greek word kurios. It means that James considered Jesus God. “Hellenistic Jews used Kurios as a name for God; the non-use of the article gains in significance when it is remembered that o Kurios, ‘Dominus,’ was a title given to the early Roman Emperors in order to express their deity.”
(Oesterley in Expositor’s)
c. To the twelve tribes: What James means by the reference to the twelve tribes is difficult to understand. Is James writing a letter just to Christians from a Jewish background, or to all Christians? Certainly, this letter applies to all Christians. Probably, James wrote his letter before Gentiles were brought into the church, or before Gentile Christians emerged in any significant number.
i. The twelve tribes is a Jewish figure of speech that sometimes referred to the Jewish people as a whole (Matthew 19:28; Acts 26:7).
ii. Which are scattered abroad: At this time, the Jewish people were scattered all over the world. There were Christian communities among almost every Jewish community throughout the world. Regarding the extent of the dispersion, Josephus wrote: “There is no city, no tribe, whether Greek or barbarian, in which Jewish law and Jewish customs have not taken root.” (Cited in Barclay)
iii. Since this was written for the body of Christians as it existed at that time, this is a letter for us today. Some people have thought that the book of James isn’t important for Christians, and some have quoted Martin Luther’s famous estimation of James as “a letter full of straw.” But Luther’s remark should be understood in its context. His intention was to observe that there was little or nothing in James preaching the gospel of justification by faith alone. In another place he wrote of the book of James, “I think highly of the epistle of James, and regard it as valuable . . . It does not expound human doctrines, but lays much emphasis on God’s law.” (Cited in Barclay)
iv. Martin Luther knew and taught exactly what the book of James teaches. The following is from his preface to Romans regarding saving faith: O it is a living, busy active mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works. (cited in Moo)
v. In many ways, we listen to the book of James because it echoes the teaching of Jesus. There are at least fifteen allusions to the Sermon on the Mount in James. A man who knew the teaching of Jesus and took it seriously wrote this letter.
d. Greetings: The salutation Greetings was the customary Greek way of opening a letter. Paul never used it; he preferred to salute his readers with the words grace and peace. But here, James uses this more customary salutation.
2. (James 1:2-4) Patient endurance in trials.
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
a. Count it all joy when you fall into various trials: James regards trials as inevitable. He says when, not if you fall into various trials. At the same time, trials are occasions for joy, not discouraged resignation. We can count it all joy in the midst of trials, because they are used to produce patience.
i. Patience is the ancient Greek word hupomone. This word does not describe a passive waiting, but an active endurance. It isn’t so much the quality that helps you sit quietly in the doctor’s waiting room as it is the quality that helps you finish a marathon.
ii. The ancient Greek word hupomone comes from hupo (under) and meno (to stay, abide, remain). At its root, it means to remain under. It has the picture of someone under a heavy load and resolutely staying there instead of trying to escape. The philosopher Philo called hupomone “the queen of virtues.” (Cited in Hiebert) The Greek commentator Oesterley said this word patience described “the frame of mind which endures.”
b. Knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience: Faith is tested through trials, not produced by trials. Trials reveal what faith we do have, not because God doesn’t know how much faith we have, but to make our faith evident to ourselves and those around us.
i. If trials do not produce faith, what does? Romans 10:17 tells us: So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. Faith is built in us as we hear and understand and trust in God’s word.
c. Produces patience: Trials don’t produce faith, but when trials are received with faith, it produces patience. But patience is not inevitably produced in times of trial. If difficulties are received in unbelief and grumbling, trials can produce bitterness and discouragement. This is why James exhorts us to count it all joy. Counting it all joy is faith’s response to a time of trial.
i. “It is occasionally asserted that James asks his readers to enjoy their trials . . . He did not say that they must feel it all joy, or that trials are all joy.” (Hiebert)
d. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing: The work of patient endurance comes slowly, and must be allowed to have full bloom. Patient endurance is a mark of the person who is perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
3. (James 1:5-8) How to receive the wisdom you need from God.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
a. If any of you lacks wisdom: Trials are a necessary season to seek wisdom from God. We often didn’t know we needed wisdom until our trial. Once in a time of trial, we need to know if a particular trial is something God wants us to eliminate by faith or persevere in by faith. This requires wisdom.
i. In trials, we need wisdom a lot more than we need knowledge. Knowledge is raw information, but wisdom knows how to use it. Someone has said that knowledge is the ability to take things apart, but wisdom is the ability to put things together.
b. Let him ask of God: To receive wisdom, we simply ask of God - who gives wisdom generously (liberally), and without despising our request (without reproach).
i. Without reproach: “This is added, lest any one should fear to come too often to God . . . for he is ready ever to add new blessings to former ones, without any end or limitation.” (Calvin) Knowing God’s generosity, that He never despises or resents us for asking for wisdom, should encourage us to ask Him often. We need to understand that He is the God of the open hand, not the god of the clenched fist.
ii. When we want wisdom, the place to begin is in the Bible. The place to end is in the Bible. True wisdom will always be consistent with God’s word.
c. But let him ask in faith: Our request for wisdom must be made like any other request - in faith, without doubting God’s ability or desire to give us His wisdom.
i. This shows the kind of heart we need in seeking God’s wisdom from the Scriptures: a heart that believes God’s word, and believes it speaks to us today.
d. With no doubting . . . let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord: The one who doubts and lacks faith should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. This lack of faith and trust in God also shows that we have no foundation, being unstable in all our ways.
e. A double-minded man, unstable in all his ways: To ask God, but to ask Him in a doubting way, shows that we are double-minded. If we had no faith, we would never ask at all. If we had no unbelief, we would have no doubting. To be in the middle ground between faith and unbelief is to be double-minded.
i. The man who came to Jesus and said Lord, I believe; help my unbelief (Mark 9:24) was not double-minded. He wanted to believe, and declared his belief. His faith was weak, but it wasn’t tinged with a double-minded doubt.
4. (James 1:9-11) Encouragement for those affected by trials.
Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, but the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away. For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits.
a. Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation: As much as it is appropriate for the lowly to rejoice when they are lifted up by God, so it is appropriate (but far more difficult) for the high (the rich) to rejoice when they are brought to humiliation by trials.
i. “As the poor brother forgets all his earthly poverty, so the rich brother forgets all his earthly riches. By faith in Christ the two are equals.” (Hiebert, citing Lenski)
b. Because as a flower of the field he will pass away: Trials serve to remind the rich and the high that though they are comfortable in this life, it is still only this life, which fades as the grass grows brown and the flowers fade away.
i. In the land of Israel, there are a variety of beautiful flowers that spring to life when the rains come, but they last for only a short time before withering away. On the scale of eternity, this is how quickly the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits.
ii. The riches of this world will certainly fade away - but James says that the rich man also will fade away. If we put our life and our identity into things that fade away, we will fade away also. How much better to put our life and our identity into things that will never fade! If a man is only rich in this world, when he dies, he leaves his riches. But if a man is rich before God, when he dies he goes to his riches!
B. Living for the Lord in times of temptation.
1. (James 1:12) A blessing for those who endure temptation.
Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.
a. Blessed is the man: This sounds like one of Jesus’ Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-48; Matthew 6:1-34; Matthew 7:1-29). In those great statements of blessing, Jesus wasn’t finished telling us how we can be blessed. Here, we learn we can be blessed as we endure temptation.
b. Who endures temptation: Temptation is one of the various trials (James 1:2) we face. As we persevere through temptation, we are approved, and will be rewarded as the work of God in us is evident through our resistance of temptation.
c. The crown of life which the Lord has promised reminds us that it really is worth it to endure under the temptations we face. Our steadfastness will be rewarded as we demonstrate our love for Jesus (to those who love Him) by resisting temptation.
2. (James 1:13-16) How temptation comes.
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.
a. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”: Temptation does not come from God. Though He allows it, He Himself does not entice us to evil, though God may test our faith without a solicitation to evil (nor does He Himself tempt anyone).
i. James knew that most people have an evil tendency to blame God when they find themselves in trials. But by His very nature, God is unable to either be tempted (in the sense we are tempted, as James will explain), nor can He Himself tempt anyone.
ii. We should remember that the pagan gods of ancient times were well acquainted with evil, and sinned often themselves. But the true God, the God of the Bible cannot be tempted by evil.
b. Each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed: God doesn’t tempt us. Instead, temptation comes when we are drawn away by our own fleshly desires and enticed - with the world and the devil providing the enticement.
i. Satan certainly tempts us. But the only reason temptation has a hook in us is because of our own fallen nature, which corrupts our God-given desires. We often give Satan too much credit for his tempting powers, and fail to recognize that we are drawn away by our own desires.
ii. Some who like to emphasize the sovereignty of God say that God is responsible for all things. But God is never responsible for man’s sin damnation. “When Scripture ascribes blindness or hardness of heart to God, it does not assign to him the beginning of the blindness, nor does it make him the author of sin, so as to ascribe to him the blame.” (Calvin) Calvin also wrote, “Scripture asserts that the reprobate are delivered up to depraved lusts; but is it because the Lord depraves or corrupts their hearts? By no means; for their hearts are subjected to depraved lusts, because they are already corrupt and vicious.” God is never the responsible for the sin or damnation of any man.
c. When desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin: Springing forth from corrupt desire is sin. Springing forth from sin is death. This progression to death is an inevitable result that Satan always tries to hide from us, but we should never be deceived about.
i. Satan’s great strategy in temptation is to convince us that the pursuit of our corrupt desires will somehow produce life and goodness for us. If we remembered that Satan only comes to steal, and to kill, and to destroy (John 10:10), then we would resist the deceptions of temptation more easily.
3. (James 1:17-18) God’s goodness stands in contrast to the temptations we face.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.
a. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above: From our own fallen natures and from those who would entice us, we expect no true goodness. But every good and every perfect gift comes from God the Father in heaven.
i. Of course, the ultimate goodness of any gift must be measured on an eternal scale. Something that may seem to be only good (such as winning a lottery) may in fact be turned to our destruction.
b. With whom there is no variation or shadow of turning: God’s goodness is constant. There is no variation with Him. Instead of shadows, God is the Father of lights. In the ancient Greek grammar, James actually wrote “the Father of the lights.” The specific lights are the celestial bodies that light up the sky, both day and night. The sun, moon, and stars never “turn off,” even when we can’t see them. Even so, there is never a shadow with God.
i. This means that God never changes. Among modern theologians, there are some that are taken with something called process theology, which says that God is “maturing” and “growing” and “in process” Himself. But the Bible says that there is no variation or shadow of turning with God.
c. Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures: We can see God’s goodness in our salvation, as He initiated our salvation of His own will, and brought us forth to spiritual life by His word of truth, that we might be to His glory as firstfruits of His harvest.
i. James may be speaking of his own generation of believers when he calls them firstfruits. Some have speculated on this even more, saying that James has in mind a wider redemption among unknown creatures of God, of which we are the firstfruits of that wider redemption.
4. (James 1:19-20) Standing firm against unrighteous anger.
So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
a. Slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God: In light of the nature of temptation and the goodness of God, we must take special care to be slow to wrath, because our wrath does not accomplish the righteousness of God. Our wrath almost always simply defends our own agenda.
b. Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: We can learn to be slow to wrath by first learning to be swift to hear and slow to speak. So much of our anger and wrath comes from being self-centered not others-centered. Swift to hear is a way to be others-centered. Slow to speak is a way to be others-centered.
5. (James 1:21) Standing firm against the lusts of the flesh.
Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
a. Filthiness and overflow of wickedness probably has in mind an impure manner of living. In light of the nature of temptation and the goodness of God, we are to lay aside all impurity, putting them far from us.
b. Receive with meekness the implanted word: In contrast to an impure manner of living, we should receive (doing it with meekness, a teachable heart) the implanted word of God. This word is able to save us, both in our current situation and eternally. The purity of God’s word will preserve us in an impure age.
6. (James 1:22-25) How to receive the word of God.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.
a. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only: We must receive God’s word as doers, not merely hearers. To take comfort in the fact you have heard God’s word when you haven’t done it is to deceive yourself.
i. In the ancient world, it was common for people to hear a teacher. But if you followed the teacher and tried to live what he said, you were called a disciple of that teacher. Jesus is looking for disciples - doers, not just hearers.
ii. Jesus used this same point to conclude His great Sermon on the Mount. He said that the one who heard the word without doing it was like a man who built his house on the sand, but the one who heard God’s word and did it was like a man whose house was built on a rock and could withstand the inevitable storms of life and eternity. (Matthew 7:24-27)
b. He is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was: The one who only hears God’s word, without doing it, has the same sense and stability as a man who looks into a mirror and immediately forgets what he saw. The information he received did not do any good in his life.
i. Observing his natural face: The ancient Greek word translated observing has the idea of a careful scrutiny. By application, James is referring to people give a careful scrutiny of God’s word; they may be regarded as real Bible experts. But it still doesn’t result in doing.
ii. A healthy person looks in the mirror to do something, not just to admire the image. Even so, a healthy Christian looks into God’s word to do something about it, not just to store up facts that they won’t use.
c. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it . . . this one will be blessed in what he does: But if we study the word of God intently, and do it (continue in it), then we will be blessed.
i. He who looks into the perfect law of liberty: In the ancient Greek language, the word for looks into speaks of a penetrating examination, so that a person will even bend over to get a better look. Though James stresses doing, he does not neglect studying God’s word either. We should look into God’s word.
ii. The perfect law of liberty: This is a wonderful way to describe the word of God. In the New Covenant, God reveals to us a law, but it is a law of liberty, written on our transformed hearts by the Spirit of God.
7. (James 1:26-27) Examples of what it means to be a doer of the word of God.
If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
a. If anyone among you thinks he is religious: Real religion is not shown by hearing the word, but by doing it. One way to do God’s word is to bridle the tongue.
i. Thinks he is religious: In the ancient Greek language, religious is a word that is never used in a positive sense in the New Testament. James uses it here of someone who is religious, but not really right with God, and it is evident because he does not bridle his tongue.
b. This one’s religion is useless: Your walk with God is useless if it does not translate into the way you live and the way you treat others. Many are deceived in their own heart regarding the reality of their walk with God.
c. To visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world: A real walk with God shows itself in simple, practical ways. It helps the needy, and keeps itself unstained by the world’s corruption.
i. Pure and undefiled religion before God: There is a great deal of pure and undefiled religion in the sight of man that is not pure and undefiled religion before God.
d. Unspotted from the world: From the book of Genesis, Lot is an example of a man who was spotted by the world. He started living towards Sodom, disregarding the spiritual climate of the area because of the prosperity of the area. Eventually he moved to the wicked city and became a part of the city’s leadership. The end result was that Lot lost everything - and was saved as by the skin of his teeth.
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