The key to unlocking the dynamic in James is to be aware that the author is using several literary devises and genres in order to confront – even to shock – the reader.
The book of James is essentially a written sermon meditating on how Jesus’ teaching is lived out in a disciple’s life. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) is always present under the surface, but although it breaks out in such places as 5:12 (Matthew 5:33-37), more often Jesus’ teachings are discerned forming and shaping James’ practical outworking of mature Christian living. At times, James writes like a passionate preacher, at others, he asks rhetorical questions of an imaginary interlocutor, and elsewhere he writes adopting the style of Old Testament wisdom literature. Into this, he illustrates his teaching with the most vivid and colourful illustrations: the fool who sees in a mirror that his face is dirty but doesn’t wash, a blazing forest fire, a ship steered by a small rudder, and members of a community fighting each other because they can’t get what they want. James’ structure is deliberately to have no structure! He chops and changes not only from subject to subject, but from genre to genre, style to style, and image to image as he concisely and forcefully applies the lifestyle teachings of Jesus to the lives of his followers.
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Read all five chapters of James through aloud in one sitting. The letter needs to be read both as a whole and in sections, allowing the force of the rhetoric to drive home its practical application.
Identify the leading recurring topics in this letter. Then list what James says about each of these topics. Then summarise each of them in two or three sentences.
Begin your time with God each day by taking one or two verses, ‘wallowing in them deeply’, and then live the rest of the day in the light of their truths.
Suggested verses for meditation …
1:2-5 ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you will be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’
1:12 ‘Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life, that God has promised to those who love him.’
1:19 ‘Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.’
2:17 ‘Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.’
3:1 ‘Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.’
3:17-18 ‘But the wisdom that comes from heaven, is first of all pure; then peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.’
4:2-3 ‘You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.’
4:7 ‘Submit yourselves … to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.’
5:16 ‘Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.’
1:19 ‘Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.’
2:17 ‘Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.’
3:17-18 ‘But the wisdom that comes from heaven, is first of all pure; then peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.‘
James is the favourite Bible book of many Christians. Its punchy style, vivid illustrations and practical applications are all rooted in the stuff of daily living, and it’s continual movement from subject to subject both holds the reader’s attention and repeatedly challenges the committed apprentice of Jesus to act and live out James’ exhortations. James focuses on practical living rather than doctrine, and he mixes Old Testament wisdom (from Proverbs, for example) with aphorisms from the teaching of Jesus (1:5, 2:8, 5:12). In fact, James builds on the direct teaching of Jesus more than any other New Testament writer. The author seems to have deliberately chosen to use different styles and genres to build up the force of his message: rhetorical questions, direct instructions, diatribe and debate with an imaginary interlocutor. He also continually jumps from subject to subject, so it is difficult to see any clear argument running through the five chapters. So, the letter needs to be read both as a whole and in sections, allowing the force of the rhetoric to drive home its practical application.
The teaching of James is rooted on the teaching of Jesus – especially the Sermon on the Mount. Again and again, James is rephrasing and representing the specific teachings of Jesus. Here is a man who is kind and wise, whose strong driving leadership is tempered by an equally strong pastoral anointing. Indeed, wisdom is probably his leading godly charism. He is obviously a leader, and the sense of practical love that pervades the letter indicates a man who has cared for those in his oversight. His strong exhortations are tempered with kindness and understanding. The forcefulness of his judgements and warnings against wealthy bullies (5:1-6), those who compromise (4:4-6) and those who discriminate (2:1-7) are given in the context of healing prayer (5:13-16), wise judgements that bring peace (3:17-18), and a deep foundation of the goodness of God even in the hell of persecution (1:16-18). You feel that if you met the author, you would immediately love him as a father.
Question 1 -
James deliberately writes with a punchy style switching from topic to topic, using strong vivid images and changing genres. What do you think is the most productive strategy for engaging with James’ approach?
Question 2 -
Eugene Peterson describes the Christian life as ‘a long obedience in the same direction’. In the light of 1:2-4, do you think this is fair?
Question 3 -
James uses a whole number of vivid pictures and metaphors. Which do you find the most striking? Why?
Author: James, the younger brother of Jesus, and older brother of Jude (Matthew 13:55). The idea that a different author wrote this letter at the end of the first century attributing it to James is riddled with difficulties.
Destination: James is writing to Jewish believers in Christ, who meet in a synagogue (2:2), understand their faith in terms of ethical monotheism (2:19), as expounded by the Law (1:21, 24-25, 2:8-13, 4:11-12) in the Old Testament understanding of a divine marriage covenant (4:4). These Christians probably live in either Palestine or Syria.
Date: This letter should be dated before CE62 when James the brother of Jesus was martyred. The content and destination of the letter describe an early church situation before church and synagogue had separated and the problem of the relationship between the Law and the Gentile believers was not envisaged. Although unlikely, this letter could be dated as early as CE40.
The author switches freely between the following genres: wisdom literature, diatribe, exhortation and homily, and debate with an imaginary interlocutor. This choice to move quickly from topic to topic as well as genre to genre is deliberately intended to instil contrast and even restlessness into the flow of the argument, thereby forcing the reader to continually search for connections between the subjects and in doing so encounter the abruptness of the exhortation.
Structure and hermeneutic:
The view that there is no clear structure to this letter is proved by the fact that all attempts to outline such a structure differ and contradict each other.
It is more convincing to understand that James is deliberately setting the topics and exhortations of this written homily in contrast over against each other, a technique used by the editors of the Old Testament wisdom book Proverbs.
This approach succeeds in coercing the believer to consider carefully the practical outworking of the his/her faith. The result is a robust and punchy exhortation in which the motives of the heart and the believer’s lifestyle patterns are exposed, examined and corrected.
The letter is therefore addressing mature discipleship.
Although James has chosen to ‘mix and match’ his subjects, there are nevertheless some clear themes and topics:
Question 1 -
Who is the wisest person you’ve ever known (3:17-18)?
Question 2 -
‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’ (1:27). Do you know anyone who obeys this?
Question 3 -
Many adults in their twenties go to live in big cities in order to make money and establish their careers. What is good about this, and what is dangerous (4:13)?
Verse by Verse
To begin reading James is like opening a cupboard door and having all the contents fall out all over you. Although many people have attempted to give a structure to all the different topics and sections of this letter, the problem is that the proposed structures contradict each other, so it is better not to impose a structure and just ‘let James be James’.
In other words, it seems wiser to accept that the author has deliberately chosen to communicate his message by continuously changing from topic to topic throughout the letter. Not only does he continuously move from subject to subject, but he repeatedly changes his literary style, moving from ‘preaching’ to ‘rhetoric’, from ‘didactic wisdom’ to direct practical instruction and then back again. Throughout, he uses the most gripping and persuasive illustrations. The effect is that this little letter communicates the gritty reality of mature Kingdom living for the apprentice of Jesus, and makes this book is among the most loved in scripture.
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings.
James is the brother of Jesus mentioned specifically in Matthew 13:55, to whom the Lord appeared after the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7). He became the leader of the Jerusalem Church (Galatians 1:19, 2:9, Acts 12:17, 15:13, 21:18). The authority and freedom which James uses to admonish the church strongly is derived not from his sibling relationship with Jesus, but because of his spiritual service of Christ. All the significant Old and New Testament leaders including Paul and Peter described themselves as servants of God/the Lord. James is writing to Jewish Christians ‘scattered among the nations’ (v1) which implies that they are not only scattered because of persecution (Acts 11:19), but also speaks of us being ‘refugees’ dispersed from our homeland in heaven (Philippians 3:20).
1:2 Handling trials
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
James starts with a leading exhortation, to celebrate all of life’s trials because of the potential godly and maturing effect these will have on the believer. An essential part of this is asking for wisdom – which is seeing the issues of life from God’s perspective. Faith is ‘finding a scriptural promise of God and daring to believe it’, so when the believer undergoing a trial asks for wisdom, he/she must believe that God will indeed give the wisdom he has promised to give.
V2 Perhaps the most perplexing question believers ever face is why their loving, redeeming Saviour allows them to suffer from things like poverty, loneliness, illness, disappointment and bereavement. Nevertheless believers hold that the Lord allows nothing to happen, except that his love permits it because at least part of the pursuit of his purposes is that our faith is proved genuine, and over time is strengthened.
V3 James’ argument is exactly the same as Paul’s in Romans 5:3.
V4 Three of the main ways that Jesus refines us, changes us and transforms our deepest characters are: firstly, the power of the Spirit; secondly, the universal human experience of trials, pain, difficulties; and third, long periods of waiting, sometimes including a prolonged experience of the absence of God.
V5 This book is the wisdom book of the New Testament, and, as with Proverbs in the Old Testament, includes a strong exhortation to seek God who gives wisdom (seeing things from God’s perspective) to those who ask.
1:9 – 11 The rich and poor in the perspective of eternity
9 Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 10 But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. 11 For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.
The issue of handling riches is a central topic in James’ letter. This is not because riches are evil (although the love of riches is a pernicious evil – 1 Timothy 6:10), but because riches are a very serious obstacle to seeking and loving God and entering the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:24). James seems to be viewing both poor and rich in the perspective of Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘every valley shall be filled in and every mountain and hill made low’ (Isaiah 40:3-5). He is challenging both rich and poor to live and rejoice that God is bringing equality, and that in eternity, that is, for most of our entire existence, the horrible inequalities that ruin human life and community will no longer exist. We see something similar in Paul’s counsel to slaves. Paul’s letter to Philemon demonstrates without any doubt that Paul was strongly against slavery. Nevertheless, because he knew that most slaves would never have the opportunity to be free, he instructed them to live in the perspective of eternity (1 Corinthians 7:21-22, Ephesians 6:7-8, Colossians 3:23-24). James is challenging all disciples that every aspect of our lifestyles here on this earth should be moulded and formed from the perspective of the lifestyles of eternity with Christ in the Kingdom of heaven.
1:12 The reward for perseverance
12 Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
This continues the theme of trials in v2-4. Note the deeply Pauline progression: love for the Lord, inspired by the Spirit (Rom 5:5, Eph 3:18), leads to perseverance in trials for the Lord, which leads to the reward of a crown of life.
1:13 – 15 Understanding temptation
13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
The opposite of the process of godliness leading to a crown of life (v12) is sinful desire leading to death. These verses (13-15) are a deeply Pauline understanding of temptation, sin and death. When I focus on the evil desires and passions in my own sinful nature (anger, lust, coveting, lying, revenge etc – Mark 7:22-23), then I become enticed by them and the desire builds up and leads me to act on them. When I act on and follow these evil desires, I then commit sin. If I do not repent and make proper amends, the sin grows, as brilliantly outlined by Jesus in Matthew 5:22-26. When sin becomes entrenched, it becomes permanent, and then a lifestyle. The full blown result of this is a character built on sin and evil which leads to all types of destruction for the sinful person, and in the lives of those the person influences, both now and ultimately at the final judgement.
1:16 – 18 God’s goodness and generosity
16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created.
When we desire the good things God gives, we will not be tempted to choose the lesser second-best things that actually lead to destruction (v13-15). God’s gifts to us are very, very good. He chose not only to give us salvation through the ‘word of truth’ (v18),the gospel of the Kingdom, but also to make us to be the very first fruits of his creation.
1:19 – 21 Guard your speech
19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
James introduces a theme which will reoccur throughout the letter: guarding your speech. Careless, intemperate speech breaks out into damage. Verses 20 and 21 mirror the first two subjects in Jesus’ sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:21-30), because anger is often the evidence of hidden immorality.
1:22 – 25 Obey scripture
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
This directly mirrors Jesus’ summary illustration at the end of the Sermon on the Mount about the building of two houses. The life that remained and withstood the severe tests of life was the one built by obedience to God’s word (Matthew 7:24).
1:26 – 27 True religion
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
True religion begins with keeping a tight rein on all you say. It is built on active practical compassion for the destitute, poor and suffering, and by guarding yourself from the evils of the world.
V26 ‘When words are many transgression is not lacking’ (Proverbs 10:19).
2:1 – 7 No discrimination or favouritism
1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
James is highlighting the universal human tendency to favour the rich over the poor, but in church all believers are strictly equal because we are saved on exactly the same basis – faith in Christ.
V5 This is an echo of Jesus: ‘You cannot serve God and money’ (Matt 6:19-23).
2:8 – 11 The royal law of love
8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
This section generalises the specific issue of discrimination between rich and poor in 2:1-7. Like breaking a link holding a bucket on a chain, or arriving at the station after the train has gone, one fault means complete failure to obey. James is quoting the royal law of love as expressed by Jesus in Matthew 22:37-40, and Paul in Romans 13:8-10.
2:12 – 13 Judgement:
12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Having established the general law (2:8-11), James now establishes the principle of the future judgement, and exhorts his readers to prepare for it by speaking and acting carefully.
2:14 – 26 Obedience and love are the evidence of faith
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
This is exactly what Paul teaches: ‘If I have faith as to move mountains, but have not love I am nothing’ (1 Corinthians 13:2).
Jesus made the same point in Matthew 7:26: ‘But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand.’
V18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
Even the demons believe in God! So faith on its own gets you nowhere!
20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
This is exactly what Paul teaches: ‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love’ (Galatians 5:6). If there is no love in a person who claims to be a ‘believer’ then we should always seriously question whether there is any genuine faith at all. Genuine faith is always expressed and evident to others through a person’s obedience to Christ, and specifically their obedience to Christ’s command that ‘by this all men will know you are my disciples, if you have love one for another’ (John 13:35).
Douglas Moo explains the tension between Paul and James. Paul was challenging the Judaisers, who insisted on obedience to the Law as a condition of salvation, but James was challenging professing Christians who were dismissing the importance of obedience in the Christian life.
‘Works, claims Paul, have no role in getting us into relationship with God. Works, insists James, do have a role in securing God’s vindication in the judgement. Paul strikes at legalism; James at quietism. Each message needs to be heard. Luther, faced with the forms of Roman Catholic medieval theology that placed great emphasis on works in salvation, naturally focused on Paul in his preaching. Wesley, on the other hand, confronting a church largely indifferent to the moral imperatives of the gospel, appropriated the perspective of James.’ Douglas Moo, ‘The Letter of James’, p43.
3:1 – 11 The power of speech
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
Those who teach have no excuse when they themselves don’t keep the very instructions they teach others. Their faults are obvious both to God and their students. So teachers must be especially careful, because the truth is that we all fail in many ways and in many areas of life.
1:2 Thought leads to speech, and speech leads to action. So if the speech is faultless, then so will be the life. Jesus’ own teaching on the heart in Mark 7:21-23 is decisive at this point. If the heart is clean, then so will be the life; if the inside of the cup is clean, then so will be the outside.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
Jesus said: ‘By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned’ (Matthew 12:37).
1:8 is a penetrating insight into the nature of evil. We may succeed in controlling what we say when life is good and in order, but watch how this changes the moment we suffer an injustice, or are treated with contempt, or feel abused. A floodgate of intemperance is opened in an instant!
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
Jesus said: ‘Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Matt 12:34).
V9 The apprentice of Jesus must reach the place where every person is always recognised as one made in the image of God, because God the creator specifically decided to make someone just like that. So, however different they are, the person is God-made. They may not be doing the will of the Father, but they should be respected as a creation of the Father and blessed.
3:13 – 18 ‘Street wisdom and God wisdom’
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
Having addressed the two leading arenas of discipleship, the believers’ obedient and loving lifestyle (2:14-26) and the need to discipline speech (3:1-17), James now returns to the leading theme of wisdom. Some time back there used to be a phrase that expressed the essence of v14-16 perfectly – ‘streetwise’, referring to someone who was savvy and shrewd and knew how to get what is wanted on the street!
17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
These sentences articulate the essence of the letter of James: a heart trained in godliness, full of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, disciplined, fair, and highly skilled in both understanding problems (disputes) from God’s perspective, and then handling and resolving them. Disciples should do this with discernment, fairness and an equanimity that brings peace, justice, freedom, and creates a context for development and fruitfulness. To behave in this way is to live like the Father in heaven; Jesus said, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48).
4:1 – 10 Conflict: its roots and its resolution
1 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
James asks why we all experience so many conflicts in life, both outside and within the church. The root of all conflict is the uncontrolled desires inside us (1:13-14); Paul calls this the desires and passions of the sinful nature (Romans 7:14-24) in the absence of the Holy Spirit. In this arena, prayer only works if our motives are in line with the Father’s motives (Matthew 6:8,10; 1 John 5:14).
4 You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? 6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble.”
James states that a life motivated by these uncontrolled desires is friendship with the world, and because we cannot love God and the world (that is, follow our untamed desires to get what we want by whatever means), we are effectively adulterating our love for God.
V5 Expressed by Paul in Galatians 5:17-18. Nevertheless, God’s response at this point is to give more grace, all the rich help that God gives us in and through Christ. But he gives this grace only to the humble! Therefore …
7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
James now gives a full practical answer to the problem of the evil desires in our hearts (v2), and the means of resolution of these conflicts in life (v1). The answer is to ‘submit yourself’ (v7) and to ‘humble yourself before the Lord’ (v10), which means to deny the sinful desires of the flesh. This happens when a person loves the Lord more than the sinful desires, and this comes about when a person is filled with the Holy Spirit and thereby loves Christ and the Kingdom (Romans 5:5, Ephesians 3:16-18).
V7 The ‘devil’ in this context is the one working behind and through the untamed selfish desires of in our hearts (4:1-2), which Jesus describes in Matthew 15:18-20.
V8 The ‘double minded’ people are those James has described in v4 as ‘adulterous’, because while they say they love God, they are also following their untamed desires and are therefore trying to travel in two directions at once. They love God and they love the world’s way of living which is motivated by the desires of their untamed sinful natures.
4:11 – 12 Criticism
11 Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbour?
This short rebuke on criticism follows naturally from the section in 4:1-10 about conflict and the undisciplined satisfaction of our desires, because very often it is the criticism of others that leads directly to disputes and, ultimately, fights. James has already addressed and spoken to the royal law, that we love our neighbours in the way we love ourselves (2:8f). It is God’s business to judge other people’s obedience to this law, not ours. So when we judge others, we are in one sense passing judgement on the law itself.
4:13 – 17 Boasting
13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. 17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
Like 4:11-12, this section is an extension of the warning in 4:1-10, as it follows up the theme of the undisciplined pursuit of one’s desires. James criticises the arrogance of those who strut around declaring how they will do this or that and make lots of money. Apprentices of Jesus must ‘submit’ themselves to God (4:7), ‘humble’ themselves (4:10), and speak of doing things only in the context of the will of God.
V17 This strong statement seems to be James’ final comment on the whole of his instruction from 4:1-16. He is basically saying: ‘I’ve stated God’s will for you, (submit yourselves … humble yourselves (v7-10)), and if you choose not to do it you are sinning!’ Strong stuff!
5:1 – 6 Judgement on the rich, unjust bullies
1 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.
This is an extraordinarily strong invective judgement on those rich people who take advantage of the poor and bully them ruthlessly, or even just ignore them in their desperate poverty. It touches on Matthew 25:36-41.
5:2-4 As so often with the letter of James, this statement resonates deeply with Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:19-23).
5:7 – 11 Patience and perseverance
7 Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. 8 You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. 9 Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
10 Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.
James’ argument speaks for itself, and all who lived in a country where the nation waits for months for the rains (as we did for six years in Zimbabwe) will relate to this powerful image.
V8 ‘…stand firm’ is one of Jesus’ great exhortations (Mark 13) that Paul frequently uses.
V9 Those who do not stand firm are vulnerable to grumbling.
V11 With the word ‘perseverance’, James returns to his first exhortation (1:3, 12), because as Eugene Peterson famously wrote, the apprentice of Jesus is called to nothing less than a long journey in the same direction. My experience and reflection on over three decades of ministry is that the only people who participate in the Kingdom are those who give everything they can to pursuing and engaging in the Kingdom, or as Jesus said, those who are wholehearted in building, and utterly committed to winning the battle (Luke 14:28-32).
5:12 Simple truth
12 Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.
This aphorism is straight from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:33-37). James is referring not to ‘swear words’ and ‘bad language’ but something more sinister, the manipulation of truth through making an oath, and thereby claiming to have the moral high ground.
5:13 – 18 A lifestyle of prayer
13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
17 Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
5:19 – 20 Rescue the lost
19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
This admonition should be studied alongside the pastoral instructions that Paul gave to the Galatian Christians in Galatians 6:1 as they sought to patiently, carefully and wisely correct their teachers who were promoting the Judaising heresy (Gal 5:2-6).
The overall message of James:
While Bible for Life usually always includes a section in the main course identifying the leading imperatives for apprentices of Jesus, it seems superfluous to do this with the book of James. This is because almost every sentence in the letter would need to be listed, with the result that we would all miss the wood for the trees. It would be simpler to list the sentences that do not contain imperatives and implied imperatives!
1:2-4 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
1:5-6 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.
1:9-10 Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower.
1:13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.”
1:16-17 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
1:19-20 Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
1:21 Get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you …
1:22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
1:26-27 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
2:1 … believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism.
2:12-13 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.
2:17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
3:13-14 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.
4:7-10 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
4:11 Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another.
4:15 ‘… Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
5:1 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.
5:7-9 Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming… You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged.
5:12 Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.”
5:13-15 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. … Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.
5:20 ‘… remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
Question 1 -
How can a person ‘keep a tight rein on their tongue’ (1:19, 26; 3:1-12)?
Question 2 -
What fault of the rich and wealthy does James rail against and warn us about in 5:1-6?
Question 3 -
Study the comment on James 2:14-26 by Douglas Moo in the ‘verse by verse’ section. Are you aware of any Christians today who need to hear the warning Paul gives, and the warning that James gives?
Question 4 -
Study the seven exhortations and examples of prayer in 5:13-18 and choose one to focus on as a result of this study.
Suggested Sermon Series
A prayer based on James
Heavenly Father we ask for wisdom to see life from your point of view and always speak words that are pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere, so that we become agents of peace in every situation, and so that your name is honoured. Amen.
Comment: Heavenly Father we ask for wisdom (1:5) to see life from your point of view and always speak words that are pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere, so that we become agents of peace in every situation (3:17-18), and so that your name is honoured. Amen.
Commentaries on James
|ESV Study Bible||While in my opinion the ESV is the most preferable translation we have today, sadly the introduction in the ESV is tortured. The content is fair enough (though not excellent), but the interpretations are forced to adhere to the previously stated maxims of contemporary Evangelical Churchmanship. Nevertheless, there is good and helpful material in the footnotes to the text.
|Douglas J Moo:
Pillar NT Series
|In my opinion, this is the most helpful existing commentary on the letter of James.
Sermon Series on the book of James
Series Title: Growing into Maturity
‘James’ is the type of Bible Book that a church can study over a term.
(Church members should be encouraged to listen, or read the book themselves during the term.)
|Any text in James||‘Why on earth is James so popular?’||Why this letter is the favourite book for many Christians.|
|‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’||Maturity comes through perseverance.|
|‘Don’t just talk the talk; walk the walk’||Maturity comes through careful obedience to Christ.|
|‘Just do it’||Maturity means expressing our faith through love.|
|‘Put a sock in it!’
|Maturity comes through disciplined control of speech.|
|‘Street-wise?’, or, ‘OK, wise guy’, or, ‘Who’s the real wise guy?’||Maturity comes through the wisdom from heaven.|
|4:13 – 5:12
|‘Too earthly minded to be any heavenly good’||Maturity comes from a Biblical perspective of eternity.|
|5:13 – 5:20
|‘ The thrill of prayer’||Learning the many forms of prayer leads to mature discipleship.|
Question 1 -
Three of the strongest warning passages in the New Testament (Matthew 23, Jude 5-16 and James 5:1-6) were spoken and written by three sibling brothers. What does this tell us about their father Joseph?
|Discipleship Coaching Session JAMES
|10-15 mins: ‘Hello’ and Beginning
Set up Skype.
Key current things in your life.
Last pod you said you wanted to make progress in … how have you got on?
Prayer: Ask for the Spirit’s help now.
|10/15 – 45 mins: ‘Understanding the content’
How did you engage with ‘James’?
What were the verses that made the greatest impression on you?
What do you want to talk about from your study of ‘James’?
Do you have any questions?
What were James’ main points?
Persevere in the face of hardships.
Disciplined control of speech.
Poverty in the context of riches and power.
The necessity of obeying scripture.
*** Use some of the menu questions.
|45 – 55 mins: Personalised Coaching Qs for the Podder
1) A QQQ relating James to the “P” ’s life-situation
2) A coaching QQQ designed to help “P” ’s discipleship.
3) What question shall I ask you when we next meet in the light of the application that you are making from your study of James?
|60 min: Pray the prayer from James: Heavenly Father, we ask for wisdom to see life from your point of view and always speak words that are pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere, so that we become agents of peace in every situation, and so that your name is honoured. Amen.