A Bible Lesson on James 1

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This lesson in the first of several from the book of James. Which James? This can’t be answered with certainty, but the majority opinion is that it is James, the half-brother of Jesus. This is a book/letter that has sometimes wrongly been set in opposition to the writings of Paul, for example in Romans. We humans always enjoy being purposely dense and making things that are not contradictory into choices between them so as to avoid responsibility or to make ourselves look wise/spiritual. So we play games with “works” and “faith,” insisting on one against the other. “Paul,” we say, “taught faith not works.” “James,” we say, “taught works.” If we emphasize “faith” we both get to be “spiritual” AND get to goof off. If we emphasize “good works,” we get to be self-righteous. In both cases we are terribly wrong. These things are not opposites.

J.A. Motyer said, “To Paul the question was ‘How is Salvation Experienced?’ and the answer ‘By Faith Alone.’ To James, the question was ‘How is this true and saving faith recognized?” and the answer ‘By its fruits.'” This is put well in the 39 Articles of Religion of the Anglican Church of 1563:

XI. Of the Justification of Man. We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

XII. Of Good Works. Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.

 

James 1:1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.

The Greek is perfectly and purposefully ambiguous. It is “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” and/or “James, a servant of Jesus Christ, who is God and Lord.” This James, who is possibly/probably the half-brother of Jesus describes Jesus in divine terms.

James is writing to Christians, not literally Jews in dispersion as a result of the Assyrian or Babylonian conquests. But he wants to right up front convey a sense of being pressed, not having it easy.

Verses 2-11 of this chapter make an introduction to the book/letter that is reiterated in Chapter 5 in the conclusion. They say that patience and prayer are needed in all the contrasting circumstances of life.

2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,

Count it all joy when you meet many-colored, variegated trials; diversified, complex, intricate trials. Count it joy when you meet any and every kind of trial. The point here, already in verse 2 of this letter is that life is not a walk in the park and we are not to be surprised or dismayed by its twists and turns. Not because he offers some magic bullet to make handling what comes at us easy, but

3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

James says “FOR YOU KNOW!” If we will be honest and think clearly, there is no news here, there’s no “easy button” for the Christian life. There is no shortcut around the reality that life is tough. But it’s good for us that tough things come. They produce strong consistency. Testing produces the real stuff of Christian faith, that which amounts to something. Faith absolutely will be tested. Otherwise, we don’t even know whether we really have any. Supposed faith that caves in when the going gets tough is not faith. Do we want to know whether we are truly saved? Let us see what happens when the trials come. Do we want to experience the reality of faith in God, real humble dependence upon Him? Then we must walk through the fires of life.

4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Do you want to be less erratic and more settled in your devotion to Christ? Then let hard things have their effect. The word “steadfastness” means something like (according to Law) “active steadfastness in, rather than passive submission to, circumstances.” It means (according to Motyer) “staying power, strong constancy, endurance, stickability.” Do you want the full benefit of these wonderful qualities? Then don’t bail out in the middle of the testing/trials. Do you want to be a grownup? Do you want to truly give Christ the glory He is due? Do you want to be perfect and complete? Then, count it all joy, and persevere to the end. Count it, reckon it, add it up to be joy. James doesn’t say “go off and mediate and have a ‘spiritual experience.'” He says, “deal with the hard realities of life as they come, in humble trust in Christ, and count it not as pointless pain, but joy.”

Now this is, frankly, completely contrary to our natural minds. We want “our best life now” and an easy pleasant road. But we need to think differently. In recognition of that, James tells us to ask God for understanding about these things. (Verse 5 follows verses 1-4. It is specifically wisdom about verses 1-4 that is under discussion!)

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

The “wise” person will be able to see life as James has just described it in verses 1-4. He or she will live with the long view, headed for Christian maturity and the glory of God. And where we are weak and are tempted to falter along this path, James tells us to go to God, to God who with singleness of purpose welcomes us and gives to us, this, in spite of our failings and weaknesses. God is generous and ready to give us clarity in these things. But there is the central question of whether we are serious. Do we really want to see things God’s way, or do we want to see them our own natural way?

6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.

The word rendered “doubts” here is “to be hesitant how to decide a matter.” It has the meaning of not being committed either way, not really wanting to see things God’s way, but being to some degree attracted in that direction. There is nothing here that is stable or substantial. The wind whips waves this way and that and they disappear. There is nothing permanent in a wave. It is by its very nature transitory.

7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord;

8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

“double-minded” is “two-souled”/”with divided soul.” The problem here is not intellectual, but rather moral. We cannot hope to see things as they really are without genuine unalloyed loyalty to Christ. There’s no walking with one foot in Christianity and one foot in the world and being able to take things as James tells us to take them, from the hand of God and for His glory and our good. A person without a fixed loyalty to Christ has no source of stability, not in this business of the tests of life and seeing them as necessary, not really in ANY part of life. There will be no source of a fixed course in any part of life.

9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation,

10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.

So here’s an application of the point James is making. We may have poverty in this life or we may have wealth. They both come with trials, with temptation to stray from a humble dependence upon Christ. No matter which one we experience, we are not to look at it as the world looks at it, but are to have the long view, to have eternity in mind. What life brings us should drive us to Christ, cause us to learn steadiness, cause us to ask God for wisdom to see things aright. This is true for the poor person who feels daily pressure from lack, and the temptation to accuse God. It is also true for the rich who are tempted to foolishly depend upon riches.

11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

Do we want be rich? Do we believe Jesus when He says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God? Do we not know there is huge danger here? In all things of life, the ones that we think look hard and the ones we figure to be easy, we need to look at them as trials/tests that will prove or disprove the genuineness of our faith. Poverty or wealth, health or sickness, blessed family life or painful loneliness, etc. etc. etc. The question is whether we will see them as tests of faith, give ourselves wholly to Christ, ask Him for wisdom, and grow to maturity in Him.

12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

It is the blessing of God/the work of God in us, that enables Christians to persevere. And it results not only in mature character, but also in eternal reward.

James turns to talk about what goes on in us when we face the hard things and the temptations they bring. For one, we are prone to blame God. But that’s bogus.

13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.

While God absolutely does ordain our circumstances, it is not His doing if we fail to cast ourselves on Him and come through the tests of life in reliance upon Him. God tests us not to destroy, but to bless. There is no ulterior motive in any of His gracious dealings with us. Where we fail, it’s our own doing, not God’s.

14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.

15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

The problem is in us, in our fallen human nature. We naturally tend to wander off from our God and King. We take a first step in a dangerous direction, figuring that it is no big deal, and wind up in disaster. The gracious provision of God is blessing. The road is hard, but the end is wonderful. Following our fallen desires is easy, and the end is horrible.

16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.

James pleads with us to not get this wrong.

17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

19a Know this, my beloved brothers:

In verse 12, James tells us that there is eternal blessing in seeing things God’s way, counting the difficulties of life as joy, and soldiering steadfastly on. In 14 and 15 he marks the fact that on our own in this we are doomed, because our hearts are fallen. We’d naturally rather take the easy way, the selfish way, and end up doomed. But the situation is not hopeless, because God is both immutable and graciously at work on our behalf. “Know this beloved brothers!” he says. You and I are in the middle of a battle between our old natures and the gracious work of God. While on our own we would be undone, of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth.

19b let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;

Apparently, there is a “but” here untranslated in verse 19b, and then translated in 22. God brings us forth by the word of truth, but. But let every person be quick to hear. Be quick to hear what? The Word of God, the Word of truth by which He brought us forth. There is hope for our souls through the Word of God, BUT we must be quick to hear it.

Then James seems to jump to our relationships with humans. “Wait,” we say, “I thought we were talking about steadfast dependence upon Christ and how God works that in us through His Word. What is this about?” Well, the truth is that life is a unity. Quick speech and hot temper in human interaction is indicative of an attitude of a heart that works against hearing the Word of God. That’s just a fact. Going back to verses 1-4, do you know a person that you would describe as quick to speak and hot tempered that you also see in those verses, i.e. as patient in the hard things of life, joyous in trials and testing? I don’t. A “let it rip” manner is antithetical to the steadfast Christian maturity described in those verses. Indeed, this is just what James says.

20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

Being quick to speak and hot of temper/loud of mouth is not consistent with a life of humble dependence upon Christ. If we are not decent, self-controlled people in the ordinary things of life, we will not be people ready to listen to God’s Word. Motyer rightly said, “The courts of men are our drill-ground for the courts of the Lord. Those who would listen to Him must train themselves to be listeners, and to that end, they must covet and cultivate a reticent tongue and a calm temper. For nothing must militate against—rather everything must be made an adjunct to—the great fundamental practice, hearing God’s Word.”

21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

We are to hear (verse 19) to receive (verse 21) and do (verse 22). In this war we face, it is not enough to hear and even agree with the Word of God, we must do.

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.

24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.

25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

In this business of embracing the things of life with real faith and dependence on God, trusting that He is at work in life for His glory and our good, knowing that on our own we are undone but that God comes to us with His holy Word to accomplish maturity in us, we absolutely must be obedient to what He tells us. To fail to do so leaves us without hope or help.

James tells us we have a choice. The natural man observes, goes away, and forgets. The wise one looks, perseveres, and acts. There is no difference between the two in terms of the intensity of their looking, they are both intent. But what follows that looking is different between them. The point in verse 24 is that the one who doesn’t “do” might as well have not looked. It has produced no benefit. Recognizing the vital importance of God’s intervention on our behalf in this war with ourselves, to walk away is disaster. It leaves us self-deceived.

The “perseveres” in verse 25 is more literally “continues in its company” (doesn’t go away). The believer continues in the company of the perfect law, the Word of God. We have the choice to look and walk away to our own destruction, or to look, act, and continue in the company of the Word. James calls the Word “the law of liberty.” We wrongly set law and liberty against each other as opposites. They are not opposites. Motyer put it this way: “We are truly free when we live the life appropriate to those who are created in the image of God. The law of God safeguards that liberty for us … it safeguards, expresses and enables the life of true freedom into which Christ has brought us. This is the blessing of which James speaks (25), the blessing of a full life, a true humanity. Obedience is the key factor in our enjoyment of it.”

In the balance of the letter/book James gives specifics of this obedience. The general principle is “like Father, like child.” In the last 2 verses of Chapter 1, there is a hint of what is to come.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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