David Guzik Commentary on the Bible
James 1 - A Living Faith in Trials and Temptations
A. Trials and wisdom.
1. (1) A Greeting 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 13:55) and the brother of Jude (Jude 1), who led the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13).
i. Other men mentioned in the Bible named James include:
James, brother of John and son of Zebedee, the first apostle martyred and 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. Yet the writer of this letter is the same James who received a special resurrection appearance of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:7). This was probably the cause of his conversion, because up to that time the brothers of Jesus seemed unsupportive of His message and mission (John 7:5).
iii. When he did follow Jesus, he followed with great devotion. An early history of the church says that James was such a man of prayer that his knees had large and 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, even 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 did not proclaim himself "the brother of Jesus" but only a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus was more than James' brother; more importantly, Jesus was his Lord.
i. Bondservant is an important word. It translates the ancient Greek word doulos, and is probably better simply translated as slave. "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 also an important word. It translates the ancient Greek word kurios. It simply meant the master of a doulos, and in the context 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 meant by this reference to the twelve tribes is difficult to understand. The question is whether James wrote a letter to only Christians from a Jewish background or to all Christians. Certainly this letter applies to all Christians; yet James probably wrote his letter before Gentiles were brought into the church, or at least before Gentile Christians appeared 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). Paul referred to our twelve tribes in his speech before King Agrippa (Acts 26:7). The concept of the "twelve tribes" among the Jewish people was still strong, even though they had not lived in their tribal allotments for centuries.
ii. In Galatians 2:8-9 Paul described some of the first-century apostles as the apostleship to the circumcised; that is to say they had their ministry mainly to the lost sheep of Israel, even as Jesus mentioned in Matthew 10:6 and 15:24. In the same context Paul mentioned this same James, so it is fair to also regard him as one having the apostleship to the circumcised.
iii. Which are scattered abroad: At this time, the Jewish people were scattered all over the world and there was a Christian presence among most Jewish communities 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)
iv. Since this was written for the body of Christians as it existed at that time, this is also a letter for us today. Some think the book of James isn't important for Christians, and some quote Martin Luther's famous estimation of James as "a letter full of straw." But Luther's remark should be understood in its context. He was sometimes frustrated because those who wanted to promote salvation by works quoted certain verses from James against him. His intention was to observe that there was little or nothing in James that preached the gospel of justification by faith alone. In another place Luther wrote regarding 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)
v. 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)
vi. 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. Here James used this more customary salutation.
2. (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 regarded trials as inevitable. He said 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. Moffatt translated James 1:2 as, Greet it as pure joy, pointing out a play on word between the Greetings at the end of James 1:1, and a similar word used to start James 1:2. It is "an attempt to bring out the play on words in the original, where the courteous chairein (greeting) is echoed by charan (joy)."
ii. The older King James Version says, when ye fall into divers temptations; but the rendering trials in the New King James Version is preferred. The word translated trials "signifies affliction, persecution, or trial of any kind; and in this sense it is used here, not intending diabolic suggestion, or what is generally understood by the word temptation." (Clarke)
iii. When you fall into: "Not go in step by step, but are precipitated, plunged. . . . When ye are so surrounded that there is no escaping them, being distressed, as David was, Psalm 116:3." (Trapp)
iv. 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.
v. 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 choosing to stay 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 so that our faith will be evident to ourselves and to those around us.
i. We notice that it is faith that is tested, and it shows that faith is important and precious - because only precious things are tested so thoroughly. "Faith is as vital to salvation as the heart is vital to the body: hence the javelins of the enemy are mainly aimed at this essential grace." (Spurgeon)
ii. 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. Supernaturally, faith is built in us as we hear, understand, and trust in God's word.
iii. James did not want anyone to think that God sends trials to break down or destroy our faith; therefore, he will come back to this point in James 1:13-18.
c. Produces patience: Trials don't produce faith, but when trials are received with faith, it produces patience. Yet 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 exhorted 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.
i. "Patience must not be an inch shorter than the affliction. If the bridge reach but half-way over the brook, we shall have but ill-favoured passage. It is the devil's desire to set us on a hurry." (Trapp)
ii. "These expressions in their present application are by some thought to be borrowed from the Grecian games: the man was perfect, who in any of the athletic exercises had got the victory; he was entire, having everything complete, who had the victory in the pentathlon, in each of the five exercises." (Clarke)
iii. Others think that the terms come from the world of sacrifice, where only a potential sacrificial animal that was judged to be perfect and complete, lacking nothing was fit to offer God. It meant that the animal had been tested and approved.
iv. "The natural tendency of trouble is not to sanctify, but to induce sin. A man is very apt to become unbelieving under affliction: that is a sin. He is apt to murmur against God under it: that is a sin. He is apt to put forth his hand to some ill way of escaping from his difficulty: and that would be sin. Hence we are taught to pray, 'Lead us not into temptation; because trial has in itself a measure of temptation'; and if it were not neutralized by abundant grace it would bear us towards sin." (Spurgeon)
v. Yet, trials can prove a wonderful work of God in us. "I have looked back to times of trial with a kind of longing, not to have them return, but to feel the strength of God as I have felt it then, to feel the power of faith, as I have felt it then, to hang upon God's powerful arm as I hung upon it then, and to see God at work as I saw him then." (Spurgeon)
3. (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 bring a necessary season to seek wisdom from God. We often don't know we need wisdom until our time of difficulty. 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 once 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. "We are all so ready to go to books, to go to men, to go to ceremonies, to anything except to God. . . . Consequently, the text does not say, 'Let him ask books,' nor 'ask priests,' but, 'let him ask of God.'" (Spurgeon)
ii. God does indeed give liberally. "He gives according to his excellent greatness; as Alexander the Great gave a poor man a city; and when he modestly refused it as too great for him, Alexander answered, Non quaero quid te accipere deceat, sed quid me dare, The business is not what thou are fit to receive, but what it becometh me to give." (Trapp)
iii. 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 understand that He is the God of the open hand, not the God of the clenched fist.
iv. When we want wisdom, the place to begin and end is the Bible. True wisdom will always be consistent with God's word.
v. The language here implies humility in coming to God. "It does not say, 'Let him buy of God, let him demand of God, let him earn from God.' Oh! No - 'let him ask of God.' It is the beggar's word. The beggar asks an alms. You are to ask as the beggar asks of you in the street, and God will give to you far more liberally than you give to the poor. You must confess that you have no merit of your own." (Spurgeon)
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. We notice that not only must one come in faith, but one must also ask in faith; and this is where the prayers of many people fail. "You know, dear friends, that there is a way of praying in which you ask for nothing, and get it." (Spurgeon)
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.
i. Like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind: "The man who is not thoroughly persuaded that if he ask of God he shall receive, resembles a wave of the sea; he is in a state of continual agitation; driven by the wind, and tossed: now rising by hope, then sinking by despair." (Clarke)
ii. A wave of the sea is a fitting description of one who is hindered by unbelief and unnecessary doubts.
A wave of the sea is without rest, and so is the doubter
A wave of the sea is unstable, and so is the doubter
A wave of the sea is driven by the winds, and so is the doubter
A wave of the sea is capable of great destruction, and so is the doubter
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. According to Hiebert, double-minded is literally two-souled. "The man of two souls, who has one for the earth, and another for heaven: who wishes to secure both worlds; he will not give up earth, and he is loath to let heaven go." (Clarke)
ii. The man who said to Jesus, "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.
iii. "Do you believe that God can give you wisdom, and that he will do so if you ask him? Then, go at once to him, and say, 'Lord, this is what I need.' Specify your wants, state your exact condition, lay the whole case before God with as much orderliness as if you were telling your story to an intelligent friend who was willing to hear it, and prepared to help you; and then say, 'Lord, this is specifically what I think I want; and I ask this of thee believing that thou canst give it to me.'" (Spurgeon)
4. (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)
ii. Though we can understand the relative poverty and riches as trials or tests of a living faith that a Christian may deal with, it nonetheless seems that James has made a sudden shift in his subject, from trials and wisdom to riches and humility. In some ways, the Book of James is like the Book of Proverbs or other Old Testament wisdom literature, and it can jump from topic to topic and back again to a previous topic.
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 many kinds 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. (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 5-7). In those great statements of blessing, Jesus did not tell us the only ways we can be blessed. Here we learn we can be blessed as we endure temptation.
i. It does not say, "Blessed is the man who is never tempted." Nor does it say, "Blessed is the man who finds all temptation easy to conquer." Instead the promise of blessedness is given to the one who endures temptation. There is a special gift of blessedness from God to the one who can say "no" to temptation, thereby saying "yes" to God.
b. For when he has been approved: Here James states the purpose of God in allowing temptation. The purpose is to approve us; that through the testing we would be revealed as genuine and strong in our faith.
c. 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.
d. The crown of life which the Lord has promised: James 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.
i. "There is a crown for me. . . . Then will I gird up my loins and quicken my pace, since the crown is so sure to those who run with patience." (Spurgeon)
e. To those who love Him: This describes the motive for resisting temptation, because of our love for God. The passions of sinful temptation can only really be overcome by a greater passion, and that is a passion for the honor and glory and relationship with God.
i. Some resist temptation because of the fear of man. The thief suddenly becomes honest when he sees a policeman. The man or woman controls their lusts because they couldn't bear to be found out and thus embarrassed. Others resist the temptation to one sin because of the power of another sin. The greedy miser gives up partying because he doesn't want to spend the money. But the best motive for resisting temptation is to love Him; to love Him with greater power and greater passion than your love for the sin.
ii. "So that those who endure temptation rightly, endure it because they love God. They say to themselves, 'How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?' They cannot fall into sin because it would grieve him who loves them so well, and whom they love with all their hearts." (Spurgeon)
2. (13-16) How temptation comes and works.
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. Yet by His very nature, God is unable to either be tempted (in the sense we are tempted, as James will explain), nor does He Himself tempt anyone.
ii. "He shows the great cause of sin; that lust hath a greater hand in it than either the devil or his instruments, who cannot make us sin without ourselves: they sometimes tempt, and do not prevail." (Poole)
iii. God sometimes allows great tests to come to His people, even some who might be thought of as His favorites. We think of the hard command He gave to Abraham (Genesis 22:1), and the affliction He allowed to come to Job (Job 1-2). Other times He may send tests as a form of judgment upon those who have rejected Him, such as sending a spirit to bring deception (1 Kings 22:19-23) or departing from a man and refusing to answer him (1 Samuel 28:15-16). Yet in no case does God entice a person to evil.
iv. "Satan tempts: God tries. But the same trial may be both a temptation and a trial; and it may be a trial from God's side, and a temptation from Satan's side, just as Job suffered from Satan, and it was a temptation; but he also suffered from God through Satan, and so it was a trial to him." (Spurgeon)
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. Drawn away: "It is either a metaphor taken from a fish enticed by a bait, and drawn after it, or rather from a harlot drawing a young man out of the right way, and alluring him with the bait of pleasure to commit folly with her." (Poole)
ii. 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. Some people practically beg Satan to tempt them.
iii. Some who like to emphasize the sovereignty of God say that God is responsible for all things. Yet God is never responsible for man's sin. In his commentary on this text, John Calvin himself wrote, "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 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."
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. "James represents men's lust as a harlot, which entices their understanding and will into its impure embraces, and from that conjunction conceives sin. Sin, being brought forth, immediately acts, and is nourished by frequent repetition, until at length it gains such strength that in its turn it begets death. This is the true genealogy of sin and death." (Clarke)
d. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren: 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 remember that Satan only comes to steal, and to kill, and to destroy (John 10:10), then we can more effectively resist the deceptions of temptation.
3. (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: We expect no true goodness from our own fallen natures and from those who would entice us. 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 money in 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.
i. According to Hiebert, the ancient Greek is actually "the Father of the lights." The specific lights are the celestial bodies that light up the sky, both day and night. The sun and stars never stop giving light, even when we can't see them. Even so, there is never a shadow with God. When night comes, the darkness isn't the fault of the sun; it shines as brightly as before. Instead, the earth has turned from the sun and darkness comes.
ii. 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. Yet 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: James understood that the gift of salvation was given by God, and not earned by the work or obedience of man. It is of His own will that He brought us forth for salvation.
i. He brought us forth: "The word properly signifies, He did the office of a mother to us, the bringing us into the light of life." (Trapp)
ii. "Now mostly, men who are generous need to have their generosity excited. They will need to be waited upon; appeals must be laid before them; they must sometimes be pressed; an example must lead them on. But 'of his own will' God did to us all that has been done, without any incentive or prompting, moved only by himself, because he delighteth in mercy; because his name and his nature are love because evermore, like the sun, it is natural to him to distribute the beams of his eternal grace." (Spurgeon)
d. 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. In the previous verses James told us what the lust of man brings forth: sin and death. Here he tells us what the will of the good God brings: salvation to us, as a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.
ii. James may refer to his own generation of believers when he calls them firstfruits, especially as being mainly written to Christians from a Jewish background. The fact that these Christians from a Jewish background are firstfruits (Deuteronomy 26:1-4) shows that James expected a subsequent and greater harvest of Christians from a Gentile background.
iii. Some have speculated on the idea of firstfruits of His creatures even more (perhaps too far), saying that James had in mind a wider redemption among unknown creatures of God, of which we are the firstfruits of that wider redemption.
4. (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. 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. Much of our anger and wrath comes from being self-centered and not others-centered. Swift to hear is a way to be others-centered. Slow to speak is a way to be others-centered.
i. "But hath not Nature taught us the same that the apostle here doth, by giving us two ears, and those open; and but one tongue, and that hedged in with teeth and lips?" (Trapp)
b. 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 or promotes our own agenda.
5. (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. All filthiness and overflow of wickedness: This 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.
i. All filthiness: "The stinking filth of a pestilent ulcer. Sin is the devil's vomit, the soul's excrement, the superfluity or garbage of naughtiness [wickedness] . . . as it is here called by an allusion to the garbage of the sacrifices cast into the brook Kedron, that is, the town-ditch." (Trapp)
ii. The older King James Version translates the phrase overflow of wickedness as superfluity of naughtiness.
b. Receive with meekness the implanted word: In contrast to an impure manner of living, we should receive the implanted word of God (doing it with meekness, a teachable heart). This word is able to save us, both in our current situation and eternally. The purity of God's word can preserve us even in an impure age.
i. "The first thing, then, is receive. That word 'receive' is a very instructive gospel word; it is the door through which God's grace enters to us. We are not saved by working, but by receiving; not by what we give to God, but by what God gives to us, and we receive from him." (Spurgeon)
ii. Here James alluded to the spiritual power of the word of God. When it is implanted in the human heart, it is able to save your souls. The word of God carries the power of God.
6. (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. It was common in the ancient world for people to hear a teacher. If you followed the teacher and tried to live what he said, you were called a disciple of that teacher. We may say that Jesus is looking for disciples: doers, not mere 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. The one who both heard and did God's word could withstand the inevitable storms of life and the judgment of eternity (Matthew 7:24-27).
iii. "A teacher or preacher may give an eloquent address on the gospel, or explain ably some O.T. prophecy about Christ, but when the sermon is done, it is not done; something remains to be done by the hearers in life, and if they content themselves with sentimental admiration or with enjoying the emotional or mental treat, they need not imagine that this is religion." (Moffatt)
iv. "I fear we have many such in all congregations; admiring hearers, affectionate hearers, attached hearers, but all the while unblest hearers, because they are not doers of the word." (Spurgeon)
v. "You know the old story; I am half ashamed to repeat it again, but it is so pat to the point. When Donald came out of kirk sooner than usual, Sandy said to him, 'What, Donald, is the sermon all done?' 'No,' said Donald, 'it is all said, but it is not begun to be done yet.'" (Spurgeon)
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 person 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 had in mind people who give a careful scrutiny of God's word; they may be regarded as Bible experts but it still doesn't result in doing.
ii. "The glass of the Word is not like our ordinary looking-glass, which merely shows us our external features; but, according to the Greek of our text, the man sees in it 'the face of his birth'; that is, the face of his nature. He that reads and hears the Word may see not only his actions there, but his motives, his desires, his inward condition." (Spurgeon)
iii. Understanding this power of the Word of God, the preacher is responsible for working hard to not hinder this power. "Certain preachers dream that it is their business to paint pretty pictures: but it is not so. We are not to design and sketch, but simply to give the reflection of truth. We are to hold up the mirror to nature in a moral and spiritual sense, and let men see themselves therein. We have not even to make the mirror, but only to hold it up. The thoughts of God, and not our own thoughts, are to be set before our hearers' minds; and these discover a man to himself. The Word of the Lord is a revealer of secrets: it shows a man his life, his thoughts, his heart, his inmost self." (Spurgeon)
iv. 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 he will not put to use by being a doer of the word.
v. "The doctrines of God, faithfully preached, are such a mirror; he who hears cannot help discovering his own character, and being affected with his own deformity; he sorrows, and purposes amendment; but when the preaching is over, the mirror is removed . . . he soon forgets what manner of man he was . . . he reasons himself out of the necessity of repentance and amendment of life, and thus deceives his soul." (Clarke)
vi. "Get thee God's law as a glass to toot [to study carefully] in, saith Mr. Bradford; so shalt thou see thy face foul arrayed, and so shamefully saucy, mangy, pocky, and scabbed, that thou canst not but be sorry at the contemplation thereof." (Trapp)
c. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it . . . this one will be blessed in what he does: 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 spoke of a penetrating examination, so that a person would even bend over to get a better look. Though James stressed doing, he did not neglect studying God's Word either. We should look into God's Word.
ii. Adam Clarke points out that the ancient Greek word translated continues is parameinas and has this sense: "Takes time to see and examine the state of his soul, the grace of his God, the extent of his duty, and the height of the promised glory. The metaphor here is taken from those females who spend much time at their glass, in order that they may decorate themselves to the greatest advantage, and not leave one hair, or the smallest ornament, out of its place."
iii. 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.
iv. "The whole doctrine of Scripture, or especially the gospel, called a law, Romans 3:27, both as it is a rule, and by reason of the power it hath over the heart; and a law of liberty, because it shows the way to the best liberty, freedom from sin, the bondage of the ceremonial law, the rigour of the moral, and from the wrath of God." (Poole)
7. (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: James just explained that 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: The New Testament never uses this ancient Greek word for "religious" in a positive sense (Acts 17:22, 25:19, 26:5; Colossians 2:23). James used it here of someone who is religious, but is not really right with God, and this 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.
i. "This seems to reflect upon the hypocritical Jews, whose religion consisted so much in external observances, and keeping themselves from ceremonial defilements, when yet they were sullied with so many moral ones, James 1:14; Matthew 23:23; John 18:28; devoured widows' houses." (Poole)
ii. "He does not deny the place of public worship (see James 2:2, 5:14) or of religious observances, but he explains that in God's sight a pure, unsoiled religion expresses itself in acts of charity and in chastity - the two features of early Christian ethics which impressed the contemporary world." (Moffatt)
c. 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. 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. "The Biblical Ritualism, the pure external worship, the true embodiment of the inward principles of religion is to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep ourselves unspotted from the world. Charity and purity are the two great garments of Christianity." (Spurgeon)
ii. "True religion does not merely give something for the relief of the distressed, but it visits them, it takes the oversight of them, it takes them under its care; so episkeptesthai means. It goes to their houses, and speaks to their hearts; it relieves their wants, sympathizes with them in their distresses, instructs them in divine things, and recommends them to God. And all this it does for the Lord's sake. This is the religion of Christ." (Clarke)
e. Unspotted from the world: The idea is not that a Christian retreats away from the world; instead they interact with orphans and widows in their trouble and others such in their need. The Christian ideal is not to retreat from the world; they are in the world, they are not of it; and remain unspotted from the world.
i. "I would like to see a Christian, not kept in a glass case away from trial and temptation, but yet covered with an invisible shield, so that, wherever he went, he would be guarded and protected from the evil influences that are in the world in almost every place." (Spurgeon)
ii. 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 only by the skin of his teeth.
iii. "There is no book with so lofty an ideal of what life may become when it is yielded to the grace of Christ. A cleansed heart, and an unspotted robe; no sin allowed and permitted in the soul, and no evil habit allowed to dominate and enthrall the life." (Meyer)
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