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Bible Commentaries

Henry Mahan's Commentary on Selected Books of the New Testament
James 1

 

 

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Verses 1-5

The trying of faith

James 1:1-5

The Epistle of James was not received by many churches without opposition. Some men of the past have rejected it as being without authority. I receive it completely because I see no reason to reject it. It contains nothing unworthy of an apostle of Christ. It is full of beneficial instructions for every believer on the subjects of patience, prayer, humility, good works, the restraining of the tongue, contempt for the world and true faith. The writings of Solomon differ much from those of David, just as the writings of James differ from those of Paul. This diversity, however, does not make us approve of one and condemn the other.

James 1:1. ‘James, a servant.’ In identifying himself, James claims no distinction except that which we all possess, ‘servants of God’ (Psalms 116:16; Psalms 116:18). We never (nor do we want to) rise above this blessed position, not even in glory (Revelation 22:3).

‘And of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ In all of our worship, service and praise, we honour the Father and the Son (John 5:23). The Father will be honoured, worshipped and known only in the Son (John 14:6). We look to Christ for atonement, acceptance and assistance.

‘To the twelve tribes.’ The Jewish people were referred to as the twelve tribes, named for the twelve sons of Jacob. I am sure, however, that James had in mind not simply Jews, but believers (of his own nation). They were the true Israel! I am sure also that Gentile believers are not excluded from this salutation, for we too are strangers and sojourners on this earth, citizens of another kingdom, seeking a country.

James 1:2. The next verses deal with trials which every believer shall have in this world (John 16:33; John 15:19-20;2 Timothy 3:12). How are we to regard these trials? What is to be our attitude? ‘My brethren, consider it joy of the highest kind when you are put under trial by the hand of God’ (Matthew 5:11-12; Acts 5:41; 2 Corinthians 12:10).

James 1:3. Three reasons are given why we should regard our trials as blessings.

1. We are providentially brought under these trials by the hand of our heavenly Father, who will work all things (difficult as they may seem) together for our good (Romans 8:28; Hebrews 12:5-8). We should rejoice in the prospect of the future good that we shall receive from these trials.

2. Faith must be tried. It can only be proved by trial. How often faith is counterfeited! Trials are given that we may determine if we are leaning on the flesh or the Lord. If I would know the genuineness of my faith, if I would know that I have not run in vain, if I would know that I am not a stony-ground hearer, my faith must be tried!

3. Trials not only reveal faith, but they work, bring out and encourage patience (Romans 5:3). Were God not to try us, leaving us free from trouble, we would never learn patience, pity, compassion or perseverance.

James 1:4. We are to endure trials without seeking a quick deliverance, so that the full work may be done, the lesson well learned. We must not grow weary and seek a premature relief. We must not resign from the race, but we must endure to the end that we might be fully developed and mature in grace. ‘Wanting nothing,’ that is, lacking nothing essential to a strong, mature believer in Christ, being grounded and settled in faith! We must be gracious in love, as well as grounded in truth. We must be strong in practice, as well as sound in principle. We must be givers of mercy, as well as receivers of mercy.

James 1:5. These next verses are connected with the preceding ones. How can we be happy in the midst of trials? We are to endure trials without complaining, fretting or questioning God’s providence (Job 1:21). We are to endure trials without seeking a quick deliverance, that the full work of God might be done. How can we be patient? How can we pierce the darkness of divine dealings? How can mere human beings submit to the will of God and become disentangled from our own flesh, will and desires?

James bids us to ask the Lord to give us wisdom! The term ‘wisdom’ is more than knowledge, information or learning. We can have vast stores of knowledge and be fools! ‘Knowledge is the horse; wisdom is the driver who steers him in the proper direction.’ Wisdom is the proper combination of truth and Spirit, of faith and conduct, of mind and heart, of knowing the will of God and yielding to it. Wisdom is discernment of heart and discipline of mouth. Wisdom is seeing the mind and providence of God and yielding to it in the face of opposition from within and without, regardless of frowns and flatteries which Satan uses to turn us aside.

‘Let him ask of God.’ It is not, ‘Let him search the writings of men,’ or ‘Let him copy other experiences.’ Far simpler and far more effective is this way: ‘Let him ask of God’ (Matthew 7:7-11). No real seeker is sent away empty. That which is for our good and his glory is given liberally and bountifully.

‘He upbraideth not.’ He does not point to the past and say, ‘Look what a mess you have made! Look at how you have failed! You don’t deserve what you ask! You don’t appreciate what you have!’ We never weary our Lord by asking too much or too often! He is plenteous in mercy.

‘It is not really the trials themselves that produce patience, godliness and faith. Trials determine nothing themselves. It is our attitude, feeling and behaviour under trial that produces the results. Actually, trials may harden instead of softening. They may drive us away from the Master instead of bringing us near. It depends on how we react to them’ (John Adams).


Verses 6-12

Let him ask in faith

James 1:6-12

James 1:6. ‘Let him ask of God’ (James 1:5). If we desire grace under trial, ask God. If we desire patience and wisdom under trial, ask God.

‘But let him ask in faith.’ We must not only go to the right place, but we must approach him in the right manner – believing! Faith in the existence of God, faith in the power and purpose of God and faith in the wisdom and will of God are essential to prayer (Hebrews 11:6; Matthew 22:21). ‘Nothing wavering.’ We must not waver (doubt) about the thing asked for, nor whether it is right to ask it. That should be determined before we ask!

1. The thing asked for: today we are urgent, tomorrow indifferent. Today we are zealous; tomorrow it is forgotten. Today we trust; tomorrow we doubt. We are as unsettled as the waves of the sea.

2. The right to ask: we do not deserve anything, nor do we have any merits on which to plead. Our plea is the merits of Christ and the relationship we have with the Father (Matthew 7:7-12).

James 1:7-8. The unsure, wavering man (who is in today and out tomorrow, divided in his interests, and whose heart is not fixed toward a definite commitment to Christ and his will) can receive nothing from God; he is double-minded, uncertain. He is inclined to God and to the world. He has a desire toward God, but a reluctance to let go of the world. He wants the grace of patience, but not the trial which is necessary to the grace. He wants to be used of God, but in the way and place he chooses. He wants the crown without the cross. Such a man may not be a hypocrite (pretending to be what he is not), but he is simply unsure, unsettled and uncommitted! Job said, ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.’ A divided heart is attributed to lack of purpose and lack of faith.

James 1:9. ‘Let the brother.’ We are brothers and sisters in Christ. This is not just a title. It is a family relationship! The ties and bonds of grace in the blood of Christ are deeper and stronger than those of nature. Brethren in Christ are closer than brothers in the flesh. Theirs is an eternal union (1 John 4:7-11).

‘The brother of low degree.’ The low degree refers not to his spiritual state. He is a brother without wealth, property, influence or earthly rank. Let him rejoice that in Christ he possesses true riches, true greatness and true rank. He is a child of the King, a priest, a king and an heir of all things (Matthew 11:11; James 2:5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:26; 1 Corinthians 1:29). He is also an equal brother, or, rather, he is the most important! (1 Corinthians 6:4.)

James 1:10. ‘Let the rich brother rejoice.’ Let this brother rejoice that God has taught him the grace of humility! The natural tendency of wealth, talent and position is to fill men with pride, self-importance and vain glory. Happy is the leader, the wealthy, influential brother, who has learned:

1. That he is nothing!

2. The vanity, frailty and emptiness of material and fleshly possessions.

3. That God gave and God can take away (Job. l:21; 1 Corinthians 4:7).

As the flower of the grass he shall pass away.’ Earthly riches, fame and glory, like flowers, have their outward show and beauty, which attract the eye and the mind. These things are gay and glittering, pleasant to behold and to possess, but years, rust and age soon destroy them and they are no more. Put your hand on everything your natural eye can behold and say, ‘This, too, shall pass away.’

James 1:11. The sun comes up in a burning heat and withers the grass and the flowers. So shall the rich, worldly-minded man wither and die in the midst of his pursuits. Riches and worldly recognition are uncertain and only vain show. Beauty, strength and health shall decay and die. Sometimes they fade and die in a man’s lifetime, but always in his death. Only a spiritual knowledge of Christ, an interest in Christ and hope in Christ shall abide (Hebrews 13:8; Matthew 7:19-20; Matthew 6:31-34).

James 1:12. The one great object of these verses is to comfort and direct believers who are subjected to heavy trials. These trials are from the Father and are for our good. They reveal faith, strengthen faith, promote patience, make us useful servants and wean us from this world. There is a temptation in all trials to doubt the love of God, to rebel against his hand, and even to turn back. Happy is the man who stands up under trials, for when God has put him as gold in the fire, when God has purged his pride and proved his faith, when God has revealed the true grace and confidence of his heart in Christ, he shall receive the crown of life. It is called a crown because of the glory of it, which will be on both the soul and body of the believer. It is called a crown because we are kings. It is called a crown of life because it is eternal life that fadeth not away (1 John 3:1-3; Revelation 5:9-10).

Every good gift from God

James 1:13-18

James 1:13. The great objective of the preceding verses is to comfort and instruct believers who are subjected to heavy trials. These trials are from our Father and for our good. They reveal and strengthen faith. They produce patience, wean us from the vanities of the world and make us useful servants in all areas. There is also an element of temptation in every trial – to complain, to doubt the love of God, to turn back or to give way to self-pity. But in James 1:13 the apostle uses the word ‘tempted’ in another sense. Here he speaks of inward temptations which are the fleshly desires that entice us to sin. God is not the author of these. They flow from the corruption of our nature. Let no man be so blasphemous as to ascribe any of his sinful inclinations to God. God is pure and holy, not subject to or tempted by anything evil; neither does he ever tempt anyone to sin.

James 1:14. Every man who sins against God does so because he is tempted, enticed and caught in the snare of ‘his own inward lust.’ The word ‘lust’ means the principle or root of our corrupt nature, which has its dwelling in our hearts. We were born with it (brought it into the world), it continues with us and we can call it all our own! (Psalms 51:5; Psalms 58:3; Romans 7:18; Romans 7:21; Galatians 5:17.) For anything good or holy that we think or do, we can give God the glory! Anything evil can be attributed to ourselves and our sinful natures, not to God!

James 1:15. There arises in our hearts thoughts of pride, sinful pleasure, covetousness and vengeance, which are agreeable to our corrupt nature. Instead of resisting these thoughts and rejecting the deeds, we cherish them, play with them and contrive ways to bring them about. After consenting to them, we perform them, and the consequence is judgment! Every sin is deserving of death; death is the just wages of sin! Man is the author of his own destruction (Romans 5:12; Romans 5:18-19). We praise God for his mercy, grace and forgiveness in Christ (Romans 8:1; Romans 8:33-34).

James 1:16. Do not err in this regard: God is not the author of our sin, nor may we charge him with being involved in our temptation to sin. This is a very great error, for it strikes at the very nature of God. Our sins all have their beginning, continuation and results in our own natures (‘I saw.. I coveted... I took,’ Joshua 7:21).

James 1:17. This verse must he taken in connection with what has gone before. When James mentions ‘every good gift,’ it is in opposition to the evil in and from us, of which he says God is not the cause (Matthew 7:11). Whether of nature, providence or grace, every good gift (called ‘perfect gift’ because it has no mixture of evil whatever) is from our Lord! Again let us take the full blame for all evil and ascribe to God all glory for every good thing!

He is the ‘Father of lights.’ Light in the Scriptures means especially two things: the light of truth and the light of holiness. God is the origin, source and giver of these! From him, descends every good, useful and necessary gift. With him, there is never a shadow, shade or appearance of change. In him, there is no darkness, no change, no inconsistency. He never varies in his dealings with men (Hebrews 13:8). He is the author of all good and no evil. We should abhor whatever comes to our minds, or is suggested by others, which is not compatible with his holy praise. Also, in this regard, we are pressed to depend upon and declare unreservedly the grace of God to sinners in Christ. Outside of Christ, we have no hope! (Romans 7:24-25.)

James 1:18. This is brought forth as the highest example of the preceding verse. All spiritual life and light originates with God.

‘Of his own will begat he us.’ Our election to salvation, our adoption as sons and heirs of God, was not in consideration of our works, deeds or faith, or because of foreseen merit. It is according to his own free choice. We were chosen, loved, adopted and enrolled before we were born (Romans 9:11; Romans 9:16).

‘With the word of truth.’ The will of God is the reason, the Spirit of God is the agent and the word is the instrument or seed of regeneration (1 Peter 1:23). ‘First-fruits of his creatures.’ Those who are redeemed from among men are the first-fruits unto God. They are separated ‘holy unto the Lord’ and distinguished from others as the first-fruits of harvest were. They are preferred and more excellent than all, being made so by the grace of God (1 Corinthians 4:7).

Doers of the word - not hearers only

James 1:19-27

James 1:19. Since the gospel, ‘the word of truth,’ is the means and instrument which God uses in regeneration (James 1:18), in Christian growth (1 Peter 2:2) and to comfort his people (1 Thessalonians 4:18), ‘Let every man be swift [eager] to hear.’ Let us seize upon every opportunity to hear the word. ‘Let us be slow to speak,’ either against what is heard without thoroughly weighing and considering it, or for what is heard until we are taught in the word. Be content to be a hearer of the word. We must not set ourselves up as teachers of the Scriptures until we have listened, learned and been taught of the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:11; 2 Timothy 2:15).

‘Let us be slow to wrath,’ when the doctrines of grace are preached, when corrections and instructions are given and when sin is exposed. According to the context, we are not to become angry or upset when someone disagrees with us, does not believe our gospel or lives contrary to our desires (Proverbs 14:29). A passionate, angry spirit does not adorn the gospel.

James 1:20. We do not persuade men to faith and righteousness, nor do we promote the glory of God, with an angry spirit. ‘A meek and quiet spirit is of great price in the sight of God.’

James 1:21. To divide this verse into two points will open it up to us.

1. ‘Lay aside all manner of filthiness,’ both of flesh and spirit, especially pride, vanity, malice and evil speaking. The word ‘superfluity’ means ‘excess’ or what is ‘not needed.’ We are never wholly cleansed or rid of these things in this life. We are exhorted constantly to ‘weed our gardens’ and rid ourselves of the passions of flesh and spirit.

2. ‘Receive the word with meekness and gentleness,’ even that word which is contrary to our thoughts and ideas. The ‘engrafted’ word is that which is put into the heart by the Holy Spirit, made a part of our very being by the power of God and is able to save our souls (Romans 10:17; 2 Timothy 3:15).

James 1:22. We are to be eager to hear the word of God.

1. We are to hear it thoughtfully and quietly, slow to become authorities and teachers.

2. We are to hear it humbly, as it is the word of our Lord (Romans 9:20).

3. But we are not to be hearers only.

The word of God is to be believed, loved and obeyed! We are to put into practice its commandments, ordinances and principles (John 25:14). Those who rest upon outward hearing of the word only will be greatly disappointed in that day (Matthew 7:26-27).

James 1:23-24. The word of God not only reveals the holy God to men; it also discovers sinful man to himself. The man who hears only is like a man who looks into a mirror and sees dirt, blemishes, hair in disarray but, rather than seeking cleansing and renewal, he goes his way, forgetting his condition and need. He finds it convenient to forget what he saw – both his guilt and the grace of Christ.

James 1:25. The man who ‘looks into’ the word (not beholds and goes his way, but gazes with care, concern and interest into this gospel – called the perfect law of liberty – with full intent to receive, believe and obey it) shall be blessed in his life of faith and obedience. It is called ‘the perfect law of liberty’ because it has liberty as its subject.

1. Christ frees us from the curse, condemnation and bondage of the law.

2. He frees us from the power and dominion of sin.

3. He gives us freedom to approach the throne of grace.

4. He leads us into the liberty of his grace!

‘He continues therein.’ Looking to Christ, looking into his word for faith, growth and leadership, and looking to his spirit for grace, strength and instruction is a lifelong occupation and privilege (Hebrews 12:1-2).

James 1:26. If a man professes to be religious (or appears to be so by preaching, praying or personal piety) and does not control his tongue, but boasts of his works, speaks evil of others, is critical of others, sows discord among the brethren, or speaks in wrath, unkindness and gossip, the man is a fraud, a phony, a hypocrite, and his profession is in vain!

James 1:27. That religion which is sincere and genuine, free from hypocrisy before God, is supported by the labors of love and works of faith. This is not a full definition of true religion, but shows the effects and evidences of it, by which it is known, and without which it cannot be genuine and sincere. Where there is true faith in the heart, there is love to God; where there is love to God, there is love to others; and this will show itself in works.

 


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Bibliography Information
Mahan, Henry. "Commentary on James 1:4". Henry Mahan's Commentary on Selected Books of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/hms/james-1.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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