A Bible Lesson on James 4 and 5

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 is a whirlwind trip through the last two chapters of James. James has been talking about selfish ambition, self-promotion, and worldly wisdom as antithetical to the wisdom of God that sees all of life, the pleasant and the unpleasant, as from the gracious hand of God and patiently lets God do His work growing us up into lovely mature beings. One of the things that self-centeredness produces is constant conflict.

James 4:1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?

James is talking to you and me. This isn’t about international politics, it’s about you and me and the people we deal with daily.

2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.

It really just doesn’t wash when I try to blame bad relationships with others on them and pretend that my hands are clean. This is strong language, but it is the same kind of language Jesus used in the Sermon on the Mount. Speak dismissively to another person, call him or her a fool, and we stand in danger of the fire of hell. At the heart of arrogant speech and action is self-centeredness that gives away a mind that is not satisfied with God’s generous provision. And that is worldliness.

3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

Discontent and covetousness is rebellion against God. We can’t live lives promoting ourselves and genuinely be His. It’s just not possible. It’s our natural state, but it is enmity with Him. Wretched beings that we are, who will help us?

5 Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?

6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Thanks be to God!   There is grace for all circumstances. This is not a “get out of jail free” card that would allow us to continue at war with Him, but rather grace to stifle our selfishness!

7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

If there is grace available, we have no excuse if we do not avail ourselves of it. That means submitting ourselves to God. But notice that grace is also not some kind of magic that wins the battle with our selfishness for us without any effort on our parts. No, look at the verbs in verses 7-10. Resist, draw near, cleanse, purify, be wretched, mourn, weep, humble yourselves. This is agonizing warfare.

8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

Purify your hearts you double-minded. We’ve seen before how little James thinks of a supposed faith that is not consistent, that wants to play both sides of the street. There is no being two-faced with God. He will not have it. We’re either wholly His or we are not His.

9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.

10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

An arrogant self-concerned self-promoting attitude gives itself liberty to demean others.

11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.

“Do not speak evil” would be better rendered “Do not denigrate” or “Do not defame.” It doesn’t say “Do not falsely defame.” It just says “Do not defame.” James in 2:8 has reminded us of the royal law, the King’s law, that we are to love our neighbors. To denigrate another made in the image of God is to make the royal law out to be wrong. We set ourselves up as being above it, as if it doesn’t apply to us, as if we’re right and it’s not. That makes us little “gods.” WRONG because

12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

This is not about being gullible or failing to address sin. It is about an arrogant, unloving, condescending, dismissive attitude and manner. All of us stand at the foot of the cross. How do I decide that I’m above you?

Arrogant self-centeredness shows itself in how it thinks about and talks about tomorrow.

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”–

14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.

This isn’t about not ever planning for anything. It is about presumption. It’s about a way of thinking that doesn’t consider God’s absolute sovereignty over His world and acts as if we small creatures were somehow in charge and independent of Him. It’s about an attitude that doesn’t live in light of eternity. Independent of God, we aren’t even a mist. We have no existence.

15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

We’ve all heard this said in a mindless, rote, almost superstitious kind of way. But James isn’t giving us a little jingle to add to our daily speech. He’s telling us to soberly and quietly in all things be humble about our planning and living.

16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

James isn’t telling us anything new here. What he has been saying about an arrogant self-centered attitude is the plain teaching of Scripture from beginning to end. And he’s told us again. We know what is right. Will we follow through and obey and humble ourselves? To fail to do so is obviously sin.

James now addresses again a hardness of heart toward one’s neighbors and its relationship to wealth.

Jamess 5:1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.

2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten.

3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.

There is this sickening picture of one hoarding up stuff, somehow thinking it’s of value, when all it does is harm the one who gathers it. Tolkien got it somewhat right with the twisted picture of Gollum corrupted by the ring. But it’s not the wealth itself. It’s how it is acquired, the hoarding of it, the arrogance it produces, the indifference towards others it invites, the temptation to crookedness that it promotes.

4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.

5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.

You have lived in self-indulgence. What we have is God’s held as stewards. It’s not ours in the first place. To figure that we are free to use it as we please is complete foolishness and evil. Misappropriation of funds held in trust in a business context is a big deal. This is far, far more serious.

6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.

Some that James is writing to those who have had it rough, particularly at the hands of unscrupulous wealthy people. James tells them to hang on. In doing so, he returns again to the opening injunction of the letter, to count it all joy.

7 Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.

8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.

Again, we don’t live for this life only (or even primarily). We live for eternity and look for the coming of the Lord.

9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.

10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

James is concerned that we keep on in every twist and turn of life in humble dependence upon our coming Lord.

12 But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.

13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.

Our speech to fellow humans should be modest/spare. And whether what we experience is painful or pleasant, in all of it, we should be talking with our Father. We are to be in fellowship with Him, praying for help, thanking Him for the good things in life.

14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

Pray for one another. We don’t need a specialist or human priest. We are to pray for each other. The “righteous person” is certainly not so in the sense of being individually perfect in conduct, but rather in the sense of being in right standing with God, counted as righteous by faith in Christ, by humble dependence upon God.

17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.

The rendering “fervently” is maybe not so helpful. It is literally “with prayer he prayed.” It’s “he just prayed.” He prayed and nothing more! Praying was precisely what he did! Elijah was like you and me, not completely unwavering. But he prayed and God answered!

18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back,

20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

James wants Christian people to care for one another. And the praying and gentle correction that we render one another can be the difference between heaven and hell, not because we have anything in ourselves, but by the work of God in and through us.

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.

A Bible Lesson on James 3

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.

James has told us in 1:2 that we are to take life from the hand of God and let it do its work growing us up, that we are to see all of the variegated twists and turns of life as giving us opportunity to trust God and see things rightly, not from our selfish selves, but in light of His purposes and glory. In 1:26-27 he has identified 3 marks of people who have (as in 1:18) been given birth through the Word. Those are concern for others in need, control of the tongue, and a life of purity/separation from the ways of the world. He has dealt with concern for others at some length in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 opens with a warning to Christian teachers and then a general discussion of the tongue.

James 3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

It is a most serious responsibility to teach the Scriptures. It is essential to “get it right.” There is no room for or passing one’s own silly thoughts off as the truth. It is also essential to speak the real truth in a way that is consistent with that truth, with real humility before God. And it is essential to live in a way that will not bring the truth into disrepute. This is serious business. It’s especially serious because

2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.

You and I are fallen. We are weak, and though redeemed, are still tormented by sin. We regularly fail, some of us one way, some of us others. But one thing is true about all of us. We all have problems with our tongues. So this chapter makes all of us squirm. We know that James has it right, and that we’re in the wrong. And we know that there is something fundamental about our failings to control our mouths. It’s not just one more minor way for us to mess up, it somehow perfectly lays bare our remaining selfishness, rebellion, and arrogance.

Motyer says, “The tongue is so much more than what we actually say out loud. In fact actual speech is probably only a small percentage of the use of the tongue. We cannot think without formulating thoughts in words; we cannot plan without describing to ourselves step by step what we intend to do; we cannot imagine without painting a word-picture before our inward eyes; we cannot write a letter or a book without ‘talking it through’ our minds on to the paper; we cannot resent without fuelling the fires of resentment in words addressed to ourselves; we cannot feel sorry for ourselves without listening to the self-pitying voice which tells us how hard done by we are. But if our tongue were so well under control that it refused to formulate the words of self-pity, the images of lustfulness, the thoughts of anger and resentment, then these things are cut down before they have a chance to live: the master-switch has deprived them of any power to ‘switch on’ that side of our lives. It is in this way that if any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man (2). The control of the tongue is more than an evidence of spiritual maturity; it is the means to it.”

3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.

4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.

James gives us these two examples of big things controlled by small parts. You see, he’s not going to let us off the hook here. He’s not going to let us say, “well, that’s a small thing that my tongue is sharp” or “it doesn’t really matter that I tend to be less than truthful if it is to my advantage” or “a little spicy talk is no big thing.” No, it’s not inconsequential, it’s fundamental. If we are going to be grownups in Christ, we are going to control our tongues. If we will control them, we’ll grow up.

5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!

The tongue really does have this power. Its boast is real. On the other hand, if we will not control it, the tongue also has the power to create all kinds of real evil.

6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.

This is strong language, and it is not just some kind of hyperbole. There it is, right there in our heads, an agent for good if we will control it, and this terribly destructive tool of the devil if we will not. This is the other side of the truth in verses 3 and 4. Control our mouths and we’ll grow up. Fail to control and we’ll do all sorts of real evil. And this issue is persistent. If anything, the temptation to just let fly with our tongues and say whatever we like gets worse with age. The temptation is to say to ourselves that we’ve earned the right to let fly, or the right to pontificate about things we really have no business even speaking about.

7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind,

8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

James hearkens back to creation. God gave man dominion over the animals in the garden. Man has rightfully subdued all kinds of very large and powerful animals. But you and I, unaided by God’s grace are no match for our own tongues. No human being can tame it. That doesn’t say that no person can tame it, for God can. But alone, you and I will not.

It is a “restless” evil. The idea is that it is always there ready to burst out and ruin things. You and I all know from experience how true this is. How many things do we wish that we had never said? And this unruly nature of our tongues makes us terribly inconsistent.

9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.

It’s only proper that we use our mouths to praise God. And it is completely improper that you and I use our speech to wrong other people, that He has made in His own image. That’s a crazy inconsistency.

10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

These things ought not be so. The word used here is apparently a rare one and means something like “these things are intrinsically not right.” James has already told us that there should be no disconnect between our theory and practice, that we are not to be double-minded, that we are to be doers, not hearers only. This is completely in line with that earlier teaching. We can’t bless God and curse those made in His image, even if we figure they are in the wrong.

11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?

No. Of course not.

12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

Jesus said the same. You can tell what kind of a tree one is by what it produces. Salt water comes from a salt pond. Period. What’s the application? Letting fly with our tongues regarding our fellow human beings can’t come from a pure source. Indulge ourselves, fail to control our tongues regarding others, and that is a serious matter. It comes from real evil.

Motyer commented, “Salt water has a salt source; sweet water a sweet source; bitter words a bitter heart; critical words a critical heart; defamatory, unloving speech issues from a heart where the love of Jesus is a stranger.”

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.

James, without skipping a beat has now moved to the third of the marks of people who have been given birth through the Word of God mentioned in 1:27-28, a holy life. And he’s also providing an answer to the implied question left from verses 11 and 12, namely “So what is to be done about this awful inconsistency?” We’re to turn our backs on worldly wisdom and ways of thinking and walk in the Wisdom of God.

The Greek word that James uses here for “good” (conduct or life) is one that has the meaning “lovely.” He’s talking about a life that is wholesome and helpful and attractive and admirable. One that everyone can look at and see is good. This kind of life is one that is lived in meekness and humility. And this is not unrelated to the discussion of the tongue. After all, what is at the heart of most of the bad stuff that comes out of our mouths? Is it not an arrogance and selfishness, a lack of real meekness?

These last verses of Chapter 3 are concerned with two kinds of wisdom, Godly wisdom and earthly wisdom.

14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.

The Greek word rendered “jealousy” here apparently does not have the meaning of envy for another’s gifts or possessions. Instead it is simply “strong feeling,” but together with “bitter” we’re to get the picture of a self-centered life, full of over-concern for one’s position, dignity, rights, etc. “selfish ambition” is (according to Ropes) “an inclination to use unworthy and divisive means for promoting one’s own interests.” This kind of thing is obviously not consistent with the meekness and Godly wisdom of verse 13.

15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.

The stuff is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. This way of thinking and acting is consistent with our fallen human nature. It’s consistent with the ways of the world and the ways of hell. And it produces misery.

16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.

There will be disorder: restlessness, instability, disturbance. There will be every vile practice: meanness in thought, word and deed. A little of this goes a long way. James will go on to talk about fighting and the fruit of this kind of stuff in a Christian church. There simply is no sanity or peace in a congregation where people have this kind of mind and will insist on having their own way even if it sinks the whole ship. That’s true in the church, it’s true in other settings as well. This is true in a workplace situation. It indeed produces a hellish misery there too.

James says “choose life instead!” Put away selfish ambition and jealousy. Choose the wisdom of God!

17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.

James doesn’t say “do this” or “don’t do that.” Instead he tells us what wisdom and a lovely life will look like in any circumstance. The Gospel tells us the truth about ourselves and the way things are. It points us to relationship with God in Christ. It describes the quality of life in Christ, but largely leaves the details of the “what’s” for our finding out as we follow.

These are lovely qualities. Do we not want to be such people and to live with such people?

18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

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.

A Bible Lesson on James 2

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.

James has told us to “count it all joy,” to grow up, to view things as they really are, instead of from a blinded selfish perspective, to let the twists and turns of life bring us to full steadiness in Christ, to be stable and single-minded, to not fool ourselves by just being hearers and not doers of the Word, to be fully consistent and completely honest in our faith. Now we come to Chapter 2. He shows us two sorts of glory and requires that we choose.

James 2:1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.

Literally, this is “My brothers, not with partiality of any sort must you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the glory” There is the glory of God, the true way of seeing and judging, the right perspective and standard. But you and I are tempted and apply not those, but the standards and perspectives of the world.

2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in,

3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,”

4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

The sin of partiality is the sin of judging by accidentals and externals. James is not saying we should not respect and defer to elders. He is not saying that we don’t owe respect to people who hold high office. He is not saying that we aren’t to respect people who have beauty of character, steadfast faith, or real accomplishment. He is saying that to reckon as the world reckons and judge by appearances and wealth is a wrong. Why? Do we put the Lord’s glory first in our scale of values, or do we follow the world in deciding what is of value? The “among yourselves” here is probably better rendered “in your hearts.” The verb rendered “making distinctions” indicates “facing both ways,” both toward Christ and simultaneously toward the world’s snobbery based on money and appearances. Jesus, who was rich, for our sakes became poor. His grace flows without respect to wealth or appearance. To turn that upside down is a double sin. First, we wrongly assume that we even have the right to be making that kind of call. Second, we get it wrong by running contrary to the truth. These are evil thoughts.

5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?

James doesn’t mean that poverty is a prerequisite for salvation. But it is absolutely an empirical truth that by in large, true believers are not wealthy. God blesses those who are His. But those are not figured the way the world figures.

1Corintians 1:26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

Of course, not all those who are saved are poor, but God’s heart is especially revealed in His care for the downtrodden.

Deuteronomy 10:17-19 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?

7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

Again, of course, not every rich person is a hater of Christ and an oppressor of the poor. But it is from those quarters where persecution typically comes. So why would believers turn upside down the wonderful impartiality of God and fawn after the rich and powerful? But the whole business of classifying people and reacting to them on the basis of externals is flawed. In the end, what right interaction with others comes to is to “keep the royal law.”

8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.

9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

Favor rich over poor or poor over rich, favor one race over another, favor those who are in our “club” on any basis and we do wrong. The King’s rule is that everyone we meet who needs care and attention is owed the same love that we have for ourselves.

Motyer says, “Here, then, is a law which comes to us with all the weight of scriptural authority, but which in particular is marked out as being a special concern of our King, something that is specially suited to him and which comes to us bearing the royal arms upon it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself (8). How very important the last two words are! They are the key to the whole meaning. If we want to know how we are to love our neighbours, then we must ask a prior question: how do we love ourselves? Never (it is to be hoped!) with an emotional thrill; rarely, as a matter of fact, with much sense of satisfaction; mostly with pretty wholesale disapproval; often with complete loathing — but always with concern, care and attention. When we catch sight of our faces in the mirror first thing in the morning, the word ‘Ugh’ comes spontaneously to the lips; yet at once we take that revolting face to the bathroom, we wash it and tend it and make it as presentable as nature will allow. And so it goes on through the day: loving ourselves means providing loving care and attention. This is the model on which we are to base our relationships to all to whom we owe neighbourly duty. Everything conspires today to define ‘love’ primarily in emotional terms. Scripturally, love is to be defined in caring terms, for the love that is owed to our neighbour is the love we expend on ourselves.”

This is no small thing. We don’t get to treat this as optional, reserved for those who have some special “gift” or “calling” in this matter. This is basic denial of selfish interests. This is the universal law of the Kingdom.

10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

Every one of us is undone here. You and I are not consistently as concerned about others as we are about ourselves. We are swimming in a world of neighbors and would plead that we aren’t capable of caring for them all, let alone inclined to try to care for any significant fraction of them. If there was no mercy on God’s behalf here, we’d be doomed. God’s law is indivisible because it is the expression of who He is and way things really are, and failing here we fail, period. But

12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.

13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Take this seriously and we can trust that God is merciful. Blow it off and we should fully expect judgment. Of course we should. Ignoring the King’s law says we aren’t really His subjects. Be partial, care not for others, and what exactly does one have? No real faith, that is for sure.

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?

Real faith is a working faith. It is more than simply mental assent to the facts. It is surrender to the King. It is obedience to Him, and His law is “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is casting oneself wholly on the mercy of Christ and running along behind Him, doing His will. What good is a naked mental assent to the facts? None.

15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,

16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?

The basic question is whether our behaviors are consistent with the heart and actions of our God. And if God were this kind of person, looking on our misery and doing nothing about it, we would be in terrible straights. How in the world then, could this kind of practical unconcern about the misery of other humans be consistent with a real faith? That would be absurd, simply absurd.

17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

This is not philosophy or debate we’re discussing here. This is reality. And once more, naked mental assent to the facts means nothing. Motyer calls this “armchair philanthropy.” One with a false faith doesn’t risk anything for anyone else. Self is still supreme.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

The exact intended meaning of the Greek here is apparently not clear. But what is clear is the inseparability of real faith and works consistent with that faith. James isn’t even close to saying that works merit salvation. But a real faith is one that produces actions consistent with reality.

19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder!

Mental assent alone accomplishes nothing and provides no peace with God. It’s something that the demons can and do have. And no one with any sense would think of them as at peace with God. James now cites 2 Old Testament cases of real faith.

20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?

21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?

22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;

23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”–and he was called a friend of God.

When God told Abram to leave Ur, he went. When He told him to sacrifice his son (the very covenant promise himself!) Abraham was ready to do so. If we won’t act, it is not true that we believe in the Biblical sense of the word. Real faith, a faith that saves, is a faith that acts, and acts in accord with the King’s wishes.

24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?

Between Abraham and Rahab we have the spectrum of people of faith. Abraham was a rich person, central to the whole Biblical story, a respected man. Rahab was a minor character, a poor person of ill repute, and a woman. But both had faith that works. Rahab put herself at risk for strangers in a hard spot, trusting that God was with them and for them.

26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

Real faith is obedient. Real faith puts selfish interests to death.

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.

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.