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Bible Commentaries

Hamilton Smith's Writings

James 1

Verses 1-27

2 The Practical Christian Life

( Jam_1:2-27 )

The first chapter presents the great subject of the Epistle - the development of a complete Christian character in the midst of a vast, lifeless profession.

(Vv. 2-4). The apostle commences by encouraging us to rejoice in the trials that become the occasion of developing the practical life of godliness. Firstly, he tells us that trials test and prove the reality of our faith. Secondly, they are a means used by God to develop patience, or endurance. Thirdly, if patience is allowed to do its work, it will lead to a well-balanced Christian life, in which our own wills are refused and God's will is accomplished. For this we must “let patience have her perfect work.” The work of patience is to break down our self-confidence and self-will and teach us that, apart from God, we can do nothing. When patience has had her perfect work, the soul will show its submission to God in trial by bowing to what God allows and waiting for the Lord. “It is good that one should both wait, and that in silence, for the salvation of Jehovah” ( Lam_3:26 N.Tn.).

The Epistle thus opens by presenting the way whereby God would develop in His people a beautiful life, lacking no Christian trait. This life was expressed in perfection in Christ on earth in the midst of trials and sufferings; it is wrought in believers through trial and suffering.

(V. 5). However, even if the will is subject and we truly desire to do the will of God, we may often in our trials lack wisdom to act according to His will. If this is the case with any one of us, the apostle says, “Let him ask of God.” Our resource is God. We might shrink from turning to men, not only because their advice might not be sound, but because they might grudge their counsel, upbraid us for our ignorance, or betray our confidence. With God we need have no such fears. He gives freely, without reproaching us for our folly and feebleness.

(Vv. 6-8). The need that turns us to God becomes the occasion for developing our faith. So we are exhorted, not only to “ask of God”, but also to “ask in faith”, nothing doubting. In looking to God we are to count upon an answer to our prayers. To doubt that God will answer, in His own time and way, would prove that our minds are “like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.” The wave is exposed to winds from every quarter. We are not to allow our prayers to be influenced by the difficulty of the circumstances or the strength of opposing evil, but in simple faith we look to the One who is above all opposing influences of evil - One, indeed, who can walk upon the waves and calm the storm. He alone can give us the wisdom to act according to His will. Our prayers to God may often be hindered by the unbelief that looks at the circumstances. With a double mind we shall be unstable in all our ways, being driven one way or another as the circumstances appear favourable or unfavourable.

(Vv. 9-11). Moreover, we may seek to find a way of escape from trials by social position or riches. As Christians we should rejoice that our standing before God does not in any wise depend upon social position in this world. Let the brother in a humble position in life rejoice that Christianity has exalted him into a new spiritual position far above all the glory that this world can offer, to have fellowship with Christ and His people at the present time, and to share in the glory of Christ in the world to come. Let us remember that it is written that God hath “chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which He hath promised to them that love Him.”

Let the rich rejoice in that they are brought low as regards the possessions and glory of this world, having been brought to share in the unsearchable riches of Christ. Compared with Christ and His glory, the glory and riches of this world are but flowers that fade and perish. Having found Christ in the glory, the apostle Paul reckoned these earthly advantages but loss; and more, he counted them but dung. For a Christian to boast in birth and social position is to boast in the very thing upon which in his own case the apostle poured contempt. One has said, “The world will pass away, and the spirit of the world is already passed from the heart of the spiritual Christian. He who takes the lowest place shall be great in the Kingdom of God” (J.N.D.).

Drawn together in the bonds of divine love, the poor and the rich can leave behind all questions of worldly position and earthly possessions, and in happy communion enjoy the things which belong to that great fellowship into which both are called, “the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord” ( 1Co_1:9 ).

(V. 12). Blessed, then, the man, whether rich or poor, who escapes these snares and endures in temptation, looking only to the Lord to know His mind and walk in obedience to His will. Such will live the practical Christian life and, when the path of faith with its trials is finished, will receive the crown of life which the Lord hath promised to them that love Him. We often rebel in trials because we love ourselves and wish to defend and vindicate ourselves, but if we love Him, we should endure for His sake.

(Vv. 13-15). The apostle passes on to warn us of another character of trial. He has been speaking of the trial of faith that comes from circumstances without (verses 2, 3); now he warns us not to confound this form of trial with the trials that come from the flesh within. God can try us with outward circumstances, but God cannot be tempted with evil, neither does He tempt any man to do evil. We, indeed, can be tempted by evil, through lust within, and thus enticed into doing evil. Judas, enticed by the lust of money in his heart, fell into the devil's temptation to gratify that lust by betraying the Lord. The lust within led to the sin of the betrayal, and the sin of the betrayal brought forth death.

(Vv. 16-18). In contrast with the evil that comes from the flesh, every “good gift” and “every perfect gift” comes from God. The Greek word for “good gift” refers to the giving, the word for “perfect gift” to the thing given. All that is good both in the manner of giving as well as the thing given comes from God. He also is the father of lights. In the physical world it was He who set the “lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth.” He also is the source of all spiritual light. No darkness comes from Him. He is not only good and pure light, but all goodness and all light come from Him; and with Him there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. He does not change with our changing circumstances or our varying moods.

We have a wonderful expression of the goodness of God in that He has imparted to us a new nature that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures. Having this new nature wrought in us by the word of truth, we become a firstfruits of the new creation.

(Vv. 19-21). The Christian, then, instead of acting according to the corrupt desires of the flesh, is, by living in the power which works through the new nature, to be a witness of the new creation. We are called to act in practical consistency with this new nature. We are to be ready to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath. Hearing is the attitude of dependence that listens to God. Speaking is the expression of our own thoughts. We are, then, to be swift to hear God's words which express His mind and will, and slow to speak words which too often only express our nature and our will. Moreover, we are not only to be slow to give utterance to the thoughts of our minds, but also slow to anger which expresses the feelings of our heart. The wrath of man does not lead to the righteousness of God, or to conduct consistent with godliness. Wherefore we are exhorted to lay aside the filthiness of the flesh and the abounding wickedness of the heart which manifests itself by hasty words and unrighteous anger. We are to deal with the evil that lies behind the malicious words and the outbursts of anger. But this will not be by attempting to obey an outward law, which only stirs up the flesh, but by laying aside every phase of it, and receiving with meekness the implanted word of God. It is the word received into the soul, not with reasonings and questions, but in the meekness that submits to what God has to say. The word thus engrafted in the soul will work to save us from all the evils of the flesh and of the world. We are thus not only begotten by the word but we become changed in character and grow in grace by the same word.

(Vv. 22-24). We have been exhorted to be swift to hear what God has to say to us in His word; now we are exhorted to put into practice what we hear. We are to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only.” What is this but a re-echo of the Lord's own words, “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” ( Joh_13:17 ). It has been said that this “sentence may seem a truism in statement; in practice none is more needed. So apt are we to rest on approval or admiration of an act or habit as if it thus became our own. We want these simple words forever in our ears” (Bernard). The one who prides himself that he knows the word, and yet does not himself obey it, will only deceive himself as to his true condition before God. He is using the word merely as a mirror to see himself for a moment, and think no more about it. His ways are not governed by the word.

(V. 25). The one, however, with the new nature and governed by the word, will find that the word is “the perfect law of liberty”. The law of Sinai was written on tables of stone; it wrote nothing upon the heart. It told men what to do but gave them no desire or power to obey it. To be commanded to do what I have no desire to do is bondage, even if I obey. Now, by the word of God we have not only a perfect revelation of the will of God, but also, by the same word, a new nature has been begotten in us that delights to act according to the word. To be commanded to do what I desire to do is liberty. Thus the word of God becomes a law of liberty and the one governed by the law of liberty will be blessed in all his acts.

(Vv. 26, 27). The closing verses of the chapter set before us the practical life of godliness according to the word of God that carries with it the blessing of God. The mere affectation of religion is quickly exposed by the tongue. The unbridled tongue will quickly show that behind it there is a heart in which lust and malice are unjudged. Pure religion will manifest itself not in words but in practice. It will lead to a life that goes out in sympathy to the afflicted and that is lived in separation from the world.

We may seek to act upon one part of the verse and forget the other. We may do many good works and yet be hand in hand with the world; or we may be very separate from the world and lack the practical good works. Pure religion and undefiled requires obedience to both exhortations. The one that goes out to the need of the world must refuse to be defiled by its evil. How perfectly was this pure religion and undefiled expressed in Christ. One has said, “His holiness made Him an utter stranger in such a polluted world: His grace kept Him ever active in such a needy and afflicted world ... though forced by the quality of the scene around Him to be a lonely One, yet was He drawn forth by the need and sorrow of it to be the active One” (J.G.B.).

Thus, in this first chapter, the apostle sets before us the practical Christian life, strengthened through trial and dependence upon God, lived in the power of a new nature that delights to hear and obey the word of God, showing itself in love that goes out to the needy in the world, yet in holiness that walks apart from the evil of the world.

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Bibliographical Information
Smith, Hamilton. "Commentary on James 1". "Hamilton Smith's Writings". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/hsw/james-1.html. 1832.