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Bible Commentaries
James 1

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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James 1:2-27

The entire "letter," with the exception of its opening verse, may well be an essay or sermon. Possibly the author first composed it to serve this end and afterwards added the salutation and sent it forth to reach a larger audience than that for which it was originally composed. In any case, there is little in it to suggest that it was meant to meet a particular situation. It appears rather to be an essay on the general subject of "salvation" and the endurance required to attain it, particularly as the Christian is faced with the trials and temptations to which he is exposed in a secular culture. The noun "salvation" does not occur in the letter, though the verb "to save" is fairly common (James 1:21; James 2:14; James 4:12; James 5:15; James 5:20). James thinks of salvation in terms of life or "the crown of life" (James 1:12), a figurative manner of speaking foimd also in Revelation 2:10. The two parts of the phrase also appear separately in the same sense in the New Testament (for "crown" or "wreath" see 1 Corinthians 9:25; 1 Peter 5:4; and for "life" see John 1:4; Acts 11:18; Revelation 22:1). These terms with the same meaning of salvation also appear in the contemporary Jewish literature, for example, in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Verse 1


James 1:1

The salutation of the Letter of James more closely follows the usual format of a Greek letter of the day ("So-and-so to So-and-so, greetings") than any other of the New Testament letters. The word for "servant" really means "slave." Other New Testament writers employ this strong word about themselves and their attitude toward Christ (see Romans 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; Judges 1:1; Revelation 1:1). The idea is a prophetic one: God is man’s only Lord and man is his servant (see Numbers 11:11; Judges 2:8; Psalms 19:11; Isaiah 42:1). It is striking that from the earliest times the Christian community ascribed to Jesus Christ the status of Lord, so giving him the status of "the Lord" (Yahweh) of the Old Testament (see Acts 2:36; 1 Corinthians 12:3).

The address, "To the twelve tribes in the dispersion," could mean that James was writing only to Jews. But if so, he employed terminology outmoded long before his day, since the twelve tribes had long since ceased to exist. It is far more likely that, as was the custom of the Early Church, he adopted the terms of the Old Covenant to describe the Christian community under the New.

"Greeting" has been the common Greek salutation for centuries. It comes from the stem of a verb meaning to "rejoice" and is found in a number of related languages, including English. Our "cheer up" contains the same stem and gives a fairly accurate idea of the greeting’s original meaning.

Verses 2-8

Faith — the Means or Way (1:2-8)

The discussion of salvation begins with a brief notice of the faith upon which its attainment is based (vs. 3). James is quite realistic in his view of the world in which Christians live. It is a world full of "various trials" (vs. 2; the Greek word may be translated "temptations"), and these constitute a genuine "testing" of one’s faith (vs. 3). The reader is reminded of Jesus’ experience at this point, and possibly James had it in mind (see Matthew 4:1-11; Hebrews 5:7-10). Both Paul and Hebrews think of Jesus as passing through obedience and suffering to maturity or perfection, in which condition he becomes the Savior of men (see Philippians 2:5-11). Similarly, with James the testing of the Christian’s faith issues in "steadfastness" or stick-to-it-iveness, if it is endured (vs. 3; see Romans 5:3-5). This in turn leads to his being "perfect and complete" (vs. 4; the words mean "mature" in our modem terminology, see Ephesians 4:13; Hebrews 6:1), that is, to his arriving at the goal that God sets for a man’s life. That Christians should "count it all joy" when they are subjected to experiences which so closely parallel those of their Lord ought to be obvious. No Christian should expect life to be for him a bed of roses, when his Lord’s was not (see Matthew 5:11-12; Romans 6:1-4; Colossians 1:24-29).

At the heart of Christian experience is a "wisdom" from above (vs. 5; 3:17) which makes it possible for the believer both to understand the nature of the gospel and to act in accordance with its demands. James is later to elaborate this theme (James 3:13-18). Here it is his purpose merely to assure his readers that it is God’s gift and not to be acquired by one’s natural effort. The God of the Christian is One "who gives to all men generously and without reproaching." This is in accord with Jesus’ teaching (see Matthew 7:7-11 and Luke 11:9-13).

The one condition on man’s part upon which this gift of God rests is that faith of which James has been speaking (vs. 6). This again is an echo of Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 21:22; Mark 11:24). It had found expression in his ministry of healing on numerous occasions (Mark 2:5; Mark 5:34; Mark 10:52; Luke 7:9). The Gospels record the fact that when the response of faith was not present Jesus was unable to perform his saving works (Mark 6:5-6).

To make faith rather than works the normative response of man toward God’s revelation represents a Christian recovery of the prophetic teaching and is not to be found in the Jewish literature contemporary with the beginnings of the Christian Church. It represents a major stress of Paul (see Romans 4; Galatians 3). It was accepted also in the earliest days of the Church (Acts 3:16; Acts 6:5; Acts 11:24). The comparison of one who "doubts" to "a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind" comes nearest to Paul’s description of the doubter in Ephesians 4:14. The Greek word translated "double-minded" (vs. 7) is a natural description of a person characterized by ambivalence, one "unstable in all his ways."

Verses 9-11

Salvation (the Crown of Life)— God’s Gift (1:9-18)

Not to Be Confused with One’s Earthly Lot (1:9-11)

Like the Old Testament prophetic writings, the Christian faith early had much to say relative to a proper scale of values, and the Church followed its Master in an earnest endeavor to set men’s minds right at this point. "Treasures on earth" were set over against "treasures in heaven" (Matthew 6:19-21), the carnal opposite the spiritual (1 Corinthians 3:1-4; see also Luke 16:19-31). The "rich man" would find it difficult "to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25), and the rich church would hear its Lord say, "I will spew you out of my mouth" (Revelation 3:16). This is not to say that the rich man would be condemned for his riches or the poor man accepted for his poverty. It was a mere matter of fact that "not many . . . wise according to worldly standards, not many . . . powerful, not many ... of noble birth" had been chosen by God to become members of Christ’s Church (1 Corinthians 1:26-28). Outside Palestine, at least, most early Christians had previously been slaves (1 Corinthians 7:21-24; 1 Corinthians 12:13). The present passage and James 2:2-7, however, suggest that a rich minority already were to be found in the Church.

James’ present point, however, is that in the Christian brotherhood such distinctions do not count, for before the Lord of life they do not (see James 2:5). It is true of the Christian who is rich, as of other rich men, that "like the flower of the grass . . . will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits" (vss. 10-11). That "you can’t take it with you" is no less applicable to the Christian than to another.

In the Christian brotherhood a point of view transcending such monetary distinctions is secured. There is in this fellowship a leveling process at work which results in "exaltation" for the "lowly brother," and equally in "humiliation" for "the rich" one. This teaching is identical with that of Paul (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). But it also finds a real affinity with Isaiah 40:6-8, where the transitory nature of "all flesh" is contrasted with "the word of our God" which "will stand for ever." The thought of the creative and powerful "word of truth" is only a few verses away from this passage in James (vss. 18-21) and may have arisen from the association of ideas in the prophetic passage cited. But there are also parallels between James’ teaching here and Jesus’ parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-9), for example, "the sun . . . with its scorching heat," the withering of the grass, and the falling of its flower.

Verse 12

Assured by God’s Loving Promise (1:12)

James now returns to the positive attitudes taken up in verses 2-4 with respect to trials or temptations. The comments made on the former passage apply in general to verse 12 as well.

Two new thoughts which appear to go beyond those in verses 2-4 are: (1) That the maturity spoken of in verse 12 is to be equated with receiving "the crown of life," that is, the crown which is life. In the contemporary culture a crown (chaplet, diadem) stood either for authority, as in the case of kings, or for achievement or victory, as in athletic contests (1 Corinthians 9:25) and in the "triumph" given to a returning conqueror. In the latter case, the crown was roughly the equivalent of a medal of distinction or an athletic cup with us. It is probably the latter idea that is present here; life is the crown or medal granted to him who attains maturity, or, better, it is the maturity itself. (2) That "God has promised" this crown "to those who love him" is also a new thought in the letter. Its equivalent elsewhere is to be found only in Revelation 2:10, and there faithfulness rather than love is the condition of the crown’s reception. That God gives promises on this condition is, however, a biblical idea (Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 7:9).

Verses 13-15

Tempting Due to Covetousness (1:13-15)

It might be argued that, since God is the author of all things, he also sends to men experiences of trial, of testing, of temptation (vss. 2-4). Indeed, God does bring men into a situation of testing with a view to discerning and even strengthening character. This is one step in the maturing process. It is one thing, however, to say that God brings a man into such a situation and quite another to suggest that the test or trial is in itself the equivalent of the temptation which may emerge from it. James is here arguing against the pagan thought that opposites (good and evil) exist side by side in God.

Like Paul (Romans 7:7-25), James sees the source of a man’s temptations to he in "his own desire" (vs. 14, or "covetousness"), which, given the testing situation, has "lured" and then "enticed" him. Man’s temptation comes from within, from what he is, not from without. The scene is set by life’s trials; but a man’s response to these — that which converts trials into temptations — depends upon what the man himself is like within.

The sequence following in verse 15 of "desire," "sin," "death" is also closely related to Paul’s thought in Romans 7:8-10. In both writers "death" is intended to cover every form of disintegration and final collapse to which man is heir. Death was, indeed, the opposite of life, and both alike related to every side of a man’s being (see Jeremiah 21:8).

Verses 16-18

Gift from God (1:16-18)

Having made it clear that God is not the author of man’s temptations, James now turns to the contrary affirmation that God is the author of his salvation. Verse 16 is a link between the two thoughts and is a plea to the reader to think straight! God is not to be charged with man’s shortcomings. On the contrary, it is the "good giving and the suitable gift" (see vs. 17, perhaps a well- known poetic line), no matter what this may be, that is "from above." Specifically, our new creation "by the word of truth" (see 1 Peter 1:23; John 1:1-5) is from God, so we become the "first fruits" of a regenerated universe (Romans 8:19-23; Revelation 14:4).

In the difficult clause, "with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change," James is perhaps mentally comparing God with the sun and other heavenly bodies which do exhibit changes and cast shadows.

Verses 19-21

God’s Word— the Power (1:19-27)

Condition of Its Reception: Humility (1:19-21)

Having said that "the word of truth" is God’s creative agency in man’s redemption, James now goes on to declare what is required of man by way of response: "Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls" (vs. 21). But what is involved in meekness (humility) , and how does it express itself? It involves being "quick to hear" (a good listener), "slow to speak" (thoughtful and deliberate), "slow to anger" (not over- hasty, given to jumping to conclusions), combined with the willingness to go into action when the wrong is shown to be one’s own ("put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness"). All such response adds up to "the righteousness of God," that is, that which he requires of man (Matthew 5:20; Matthew 6:33).

Verses 22-25

Manner of Its Use: Obedience (1:22-25)

Humility can go too far. It can declare that one is worthy only to sit and listen, but not to act. People who have this attitude deceive themselves (vs. 22). This is like Paul’s teaching in Romans 2:13. It was common Jewish teaching in his day. Such self-deceived people (those who practice false humility) are compared with the man who takes a quick look at a mirror and goes away, forgetful of the kind of man he is (the point being, he should have done something about it!). By contrast, the Christian should look "into the perfect law, the law of liberty" (that is, "the word of truth," or the gospel) as his mirror. Seeing himself in its light, he should not forget what he is like but be "a doer that acts" (vs. 25; see 2 Corinthians 3:18).

Verses 26-27

Summary of Its Message: Social and Personal Ethics (1:26-27)

But what action is to be taken by the well-intentioned Christian? And what is to be identified with true religious practice?

Religion must be given some solid content. James’ positive definition is in terms of social and personal ethics. He gives, for the moment, two examples — "to visit orphans and widows in their affliction," a deep need to which the Early Church had long responded (Acts 6); and "to keep oneself unstained from the world," a teaching especially important as the Church went out into the profligacy of the Greco-Roman society of its day (Galatians 1:4; Ephesians 2:2).

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on James 1". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/james-1.html.
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