James 1

James 1  •  23 min. read  •  grade level: 9
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THE EPISTLE IS not written to any particular assembly of believers, nor even to the whole church of God. It is addressed rather to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad,” (ch. 1:1) and it is this which accounts for its unusual character. Let us attempt to seize the view-point from which James speaks before we consider any of its details.
Although the Gospel began at Jerusalem and there won its earliest triumphs, the Christians of that city were slower than others in entering into the true character of the faith they had embraced. They clung with very great tenacity to the law of Moses and to the whole order of religion which they had received through him, as is evidenced by such passages as Acts 15, and 21:20-25. This is not surprising, for the Lord did not come to destroy the law and the prophets but rather to give their fullness, as He said. This they knew but what they were slow to see was that having now got the substance in Christ, the shadows of the law had lost their value. The enforcing of that fact is the main theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which tells us, “Now, that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:1313In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8:13)). Shortly after those words were written the whole Jewish system—temple, altar, sacrifices, priests,—did vanish away in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.
Up to that point however, they viewed themselves as just a part of the Jewish people, only with new hopes centered in a Messiah who was risen from the dead. The same idea was common among the Jewish converts to Christ, wherever they were found and consequently their tendency was to still remain attached to their synagogues. An exception to this state of things was found where the Apostle Paul labored and taught “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:2727For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. (Acts 20:27)). In such cases the real character of Christianity was made manifest and the Jewish disciples were separated from their synagogues, as we see in Acts 19:88And he went into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God. (Acts 19:8) and 9. James, as we have seen, remained in Jerusalem and he wrote his Epistle from this Jerusalem standpoint, which was right as far as it went and at the time of his writing.
We might put the matter in another way by saying that the earliest years of Christianity covered a period of transition. The history of those years, revealing the transition, is given to us in the Acts, which begins with the incorporation of the church in Jerusalem, consisting exclusively of Jews, and ends with the sentence of blindness finally pronounced upon the Jews as a people and the Gospel specially sent to the Gentiles. James writes from the standpoint that was usual amongst Jewish Christians in the middle of that period. It is this which accounts for the peculiar features of his Epistle.
Although the Apostle addresses himself to the whole of his dispersed nation he does not for a moment hide his own position as a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was still rejected by the majority of his people. Moreover, as we read on, we soon perceive that the believers amongst his people are really in his mind’s eye and that what he has to say is mainly addressed to them. Here and there we shall find remarks specifically addressed to the unbelieving mass, as also other remarks which have the unbelievers in view, though not addressed directly to them.
Take, for instance, the opening words of verse 2. When he says, “My brethren,” he was not thinking of them merely as his brethren according to the flesh, as fellow Jews, but as brethren in the faith of Christ. This is evident if we look at the next verse where their faith is mentioned. It was faith in Christ, and that alone, which at that moment differentiated between them and the unbelieving mass of the nation. To the casual observer all might look alike, for all were waiting on the same temple services in Jerusalem or attending the same synagogues in the many cities of their dispersion, yet this immense line of cleavage existed. The minority believed in Christ, the majority refused Him. This cleavage was manifested in the lifetime of the Lord Jesus for we read, “So there was a division among the people because of Him” (John 7:4343So there was a division among the people because of him. (John 7:43)). It was perpetuated and enlarged at the time when James wrote, and as ever the Christian minority was suffering persecution at the hands of the majority.
They had at this time “divers” or “various” temptations. From different quarters there came upon them trials and testings which, if they had succumbed to them, would have tempted them to turn aside from the simplicity of their faith in Christ. On the other hand, if instead of succumbing they went through them with God they would be made strong by enduring, and this would be great gain in which they might well rejoice.
These temptations were permitted of God for the testing of their faith and they resulted in the development of endurance. But endurance in its turn became operative in them, and if allowed to have its perfect work it would carry to completion the work of God in their hearts. The language is very strong, “perfect and entire, wanting nothing” (ch. 1:4). In the light of these words we may safely say that temptation or trial plays a very large part in our spiritual education. It is like a tutor in the school of God, who is well able to instruct us and to develop our minds to the point when we graduate as the finished product of the school. And yet how greatly we shrink from trial! What efforts we make to avoid it! In so doing we are like unto children who scheme with great ingenuity to play truant from school, and end up by becoming dunces. Are we not foolish? And have we not here an explanation of why so many of us make but little progress in the things of God?
Many of us would doubtless rejoin, “Yes, but these trials make such demands upon one. Again and again one is entangled in the most perplexing problems that need superhuman wisdom for their solution.” That is so, and therefore it is that James next instructs as to what should be done in these perplexing situations. Lacking wisdom we are simply to ask it of God, and we may be assured of a liberal answer without a word of reproach; for we are not expected to have in ourselves that wisdom which is in God, and which comes from above. We may assuredly ask God for whatever we lack and expect a liberal answer, though whether we should always get it without a word of reproach is another matter. There were occasions when the disciples asked the Lord Jesus for things which they did not get without a gentle word of reproof: see, for instance, Luke 8:24-2524And they came to him, and awoke him, saying, Master, master, we perish. Then he arose, and rebuked the wind and the raging of the water: and they ceased, and there was a calm. 25And he said unto them, Where is your faith? And they being afraid wondered, saying one to another, What manner of man is this! for he commandeth even the winds and water, and they obey him. (Luke 8:24‑25), and 17:5-10. But then these were occasions when what was wanted was faith, and that, being believers, we certainly ought to possess.
How definite and certain is the word—“It shall be given him” (ch. 1:5). Take note of it, for the more the assurance of it sinks down into our hearts the more ready we shall be to ask wisdom in faith without any “wavering” or “doubting.” This simple unquestioning faith, which takes God absolutely at His word, is most necessary. If we doubt we become double-minded, unsteady in all our ways. We become like sea-waves tossed about by every wind, driven first in this direction and then in that, sometimes up and sometimes down. First our hopes run high and then we are filled with forebodings and fears. If this be our condition we may ask for wisdom but we have no ground for expecting it, or anything else, from the Lord.
We rather think that verse 7 is also intended to convey to us this thought; that he who asks of God, and yet asks with a doubting mind, is not likely, whatever he may receive, to take it as from the Lord. Wisdom or guidance or anything else is asked of God. Instead of there being calm reliance upon His word the mind is full of questionings and tossed about between hopes and fears. How can real wisdom and guidance be received? And if any kind of help is granted how can it be received as from God? Does not this go far to explain why so many Christians are troubled over questions concerning guidance? And when God’s merciful providence is exercised towards them and things reach a happy issue, they do not see His hand in it and receive it as from Him. They attribute it to their good fortune: they say, as the world would say, “My luck was in!”
Verses 9 to 12 form a small paragraph by themselves and furnish us with an instructive example of the point of view that James takes. He contrasts “the brother of low degree” (ch. 1:9) with “the rich,” and not, as we might have expected, with “the brother of high degree.” The rich, as James uses the term, mean the unbelieving rich, the leading men of wealth and influence and religious sanctity, who were almost to a man in deadly opposition to Christ, as is shown to us throughout the Acts of the Apostles. God had chosen the poor of this world and the rich played the part of their oppressors, as is stated in chapter 2 of our epistle, verses 5 and 6. How plainly does the Apostle warn the rich oppressors of his nation of what lay ahead of them! Great they might be in the eyes of their fellows but they were like grass in the sight of God. Grass produces flowers and the fashion of them has much grace about it, but under the burning heat of the sun all is speedily withered. So these great Jewish leaders might be most comely in the eyes of their contemporaries, yet soon they would fade away.
And when the rich fade away here is this “brother,” this Christian, emerging from his trials and receiving a crown of life! Exaltation reached him even during his life of toil and testing, inasmuch as God considered him worthy of being tested. Men do not test mud, except it be that kind of blue clay in which diamonds are found. Base metals are not cast into the crucible of the refiner, but gold is. God picks up this poor brother of low degree, who would have been regarded by the rich of his nation as but the mud of the streets (see, John 7:47-4947Then answered them the Pharisees, Are ye also deceived? 48Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him? 49But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed. (John 7:47‑49)) and exalted him by proclaiming him to be an object composed of gold. Consequently He permits him to be refined by trials. If we really understand this we shall be able to say with all our hearts, “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation” (ch. 1:12). The testing process itself is not joyous but grievous, as the Apostle Peter tells us, yet by means of it room is made in our hearts for the inshining of the love of God, and we become characterized as those that love the Lord. Consequently the trial issues in a crown of life when the glory appears. The tried saint may have lost his life in this world but he is crowned with life in the world to come.
Though the primary thought of this passage is the testing which God permits to come upon believers, yet we cannot rule out altogether the idea of temptation, since every test brings with it the temptation to succumb, by gratifying ourselves rather than glorifying God. Hence when God tests us we might be so foolish as to charge Him with tempting us. This it is which leads to the next short paragraph, verses 13 to 15.
God Himself is above all evil. It is absolutely foreign to His nature. It is as impossible for Him to be tempted with evil as it is impossible for Him to lie. Equally so it is impossible for Him to tempt anyone with evil though He may permit His people to be tempted with evil, knowing well how to overrule even that for their ultimate good. The real root of all temptation lies within ourselves, in our own lusts. We may blame the enticing thing which from without was presented to us, but the trouble really lies in the desires of the flesh within.
Let us lay hold of this fact and honestly face it. When we sin the tendency is for us to lay a great deal of the blame on our circumstances, or at all events on things without, when if only we are honest before God we have no one and nothing to blame but ourselves. How important it is that we should thus be honest before God and judge ourselves rightly in His presence, for that is the high road to recovery of soul. Moreover it will help us to judge and refuse the lusts of our hearts, and thus sin will be nipped in the bud. Lust is the mother of sin. If it works it brings forth sin, and sin carried to completion brings forth death.
Sin in this 15th verse is clearly sin in the act: for other scriptures, such, for instance as Rom. 7:77What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. (Romans 7:7), show us that lust itself is sin in the nature. Only let sin in the nature conceive, and sin in the act is brought forth.
At this point we shall do well to think of our Lord Jesus and recall what is stated of Him in Heb. 4:1515For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15). He too was tempted, tempted in like manner to ourselves and not only this but tempted like us “in all things.” And then comes that qualification of all importance, “yet without sin,” (Heb. 4:1515For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)) or more accurately, “sin apart.” There was no sin, no lust in Him. Things which to us had been most alluring found absolutely no response in Him, and yet He “suffered being tempted” (Heb. 2:1818For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succor them that are tempted. (Hebrews 2:18)) as Heb. 2:1818For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succor them that are tempted. (Hebrews 2:18) tells us.
It is easy to understand how temptation, if we refuse it, entails suffering for us. It is because we only turn from it at the cost of refusing the natural desires of our own hearts. We may not find it so easy to understand how temptation brought suffering to Him. The explanation lies in the fact that not only was there no sin in Him but He was full of holiness. Being God He was infinitely holy, and having become Man He was anointed by the Spirit of God, and He met all temptation full of the Spirit. Hence sin was infinitely abhorrent to Him, and the mere presentation of it to Him, as a temptation from without, caused Him acute suffering. We, alas! having sin within us, and having become so accustomed to it, are very little able to feel it as He felt it.
God, then, far from originating temptation is the Source and Giver of every gift that is good and perfect. The Apostle is very emphatic on this point; he would by no means have us err as to it. Verses 16 to 18 are another short paragraph, in which God is presented to us in a very remarkable way. Not only is He the Source of every good and perfect gift but also of all that can be spoken of as light. The light of creation came from Him. Every ray of true light for the heart or conscience or intellect comes from Him. What we really know we know as the result of divine revelation, and He is the “Father” or “Source” of all such light. Man’s lights are very uncertain. The light of “science” so-called is very variable. It burns brightly, it dies down, it re-appears, it flares up, it goes out, finally extinguished by an oncoming generation which feels sure it knows more than the outgoing generation. With the Father of lights, and hence with all light that really comes from Him, there is no variableness neither shadow of turning. Blessed be God for that!
There is a third thing in this short paragraph however. Not only is God the Source of gifts that are good and perfect and lights that do not vary, but also of His people themselves. We too have sprung from Him as begotten of Him according to His own will. We are what we are according to His sovereign pleasure and not according to our thoughts or our wills, which by nature are fallen and debased, and also according to the “word of truth” by which we have been born of Him.
The devil is the father of lies. The world today is what he has made it, and he started it with the lie of Gen. 3:44And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: (Genesis 3:4). In contradistinction to this the Christian is one who has been begotten by the word of truth. By-and-by God is going to have a world of truth, but meanwhile we are to be a kind of firstfruits of that new creation.
Is not this wonderful? A thoughtful reader might have deduced the fact that a Christian must be a wonderful being, inasmuch as he is begotten of God. We might have said, “If God is the Source of gifts and those gifts are good and perfect; if He is the Source of lights and those lights are without variation or turning; then if He becomes the Source of beings those beings are sure to be equally wonderful.” We are not however left to deduce it. We are plainly told; and very important results flow from it as we shall see.
The nineteenth verse begins with the word, “Wherefore” which indicates that we are now to be introduced to the results flowing from the truth of the previous verse. Because we are a kind of firstfruits of God’s creatures, as begotten of Him by the Word of Truth, we are to be “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (ch. 1:19).
Every intelligent unfallen creature is marked by obedience to the voice of the Creator. Fallen man, alas! shuts his ear to God’s voice and insists upon talking. He would like to legislate for himself and for everybody else, and hence come the anger and strife which fill the earth. We were always creatures, but now, born of God, we are a kind of firstfruits of His creatures. What therefore should mark all creatures should be especially characteristic of us. Hearing God’s word should attract us. We should run eagerly to it as those who delight to listen to God.
We only speak aright as our thoughts are controlled by God. If we think God’s thoughts we shall be able to speak things that are right. But, even if we are swift to hear God’s thoughts, we shall only speak them when first we have assimilated them for ourselves and made them our own. We assimilate them but slowly and hence we should be slow to speak. A wholesome sense of how little we have as yet taken in God’s mind will deliver us from that self-confidence and shallow self-assertiveness which makes men ready to speak at once on any and every matter.
Further we should be slow to wrath. The self-assertive man, who can hardly stop to listen to anything but must at once speak his own opinion is apt to get very angry when he finds that others do not accept his opinion at his own high valuation of it! On the other hand, here may be a believer of godly life who pays great heed to God’s word and only speaks with consideration and prayer, and yet his opinion is equally turned aside! Well, let him be slow to wrath for if it be merely man’s anger it accomplishes nothing that is right in God’s sight. Divine anger will be made to serve His righteous cause, but not man’s anger.
The Word is spoken of here as “engrafted” or “implanted.” This supposes that it has taken root in us and grown into a part of ourselves. It is the very opposite of “going in at one ear and coming out at the other.” If the Word merely flows through our minds it accomplishes for us little or nothing. If implanted in us it saves our souls. The primary thought here is the saving of our souls from the snares of the world, the flesh and the devil, a salvation which we all need moment by moment.
In verse 22 we get a third thing. Not only should we be swift to hear God’s word, not only has it to be implanted in us, but we must become doers of it. First the ear for hearing. Then the heart, in which it is implanted. Then the hand governed by it, so that it comes into outward expression through us. And it is only when this third thing is reached that the Word is vitally operative in us. If our hearing does not result in doing our hearing is in vain.
To enforce this fact the apostle James uses a very graphic illustration. When a man stands before a mirror his image is reflected therein for just so long as there he stands. But there is nothing implanted in the mirror. His face is reflected in it, but without any subjective effect in the mirror, which is absolutely unchanged, even if ten thousand things are reflected in turn upon its face. The man departs, his image vanishes, and all is forgotten. It is just like this if a man merely hears the Word without any thought of rendering obedience to it. He gazes into the Word and then goes away and forgets. If on the other hand we not only look into truth but abide in it, and hence become doers of the work which is in accordance with truth, we shall be blessed in our doing. To this matter James refers more fully in the next chapter when he discusses faith and works.
We must not fail to notice the expression he uses to describe the revelation which had reached them in Christ. The revelation which the Jew had known through Moses was a law and writing to Jews, James uses the same term. Christianity too may be spoken of as law—the law of Christ—though it is much more than this. In contrast with the law of Moses however it is the perfect law of liberty. The law of Moses was imperfect and bondage.
The law of Moses was of course perfect as far as it went. It was imperfect in the sense that it did not go all the way. It set forth the bare minimum of God’s demands so that if man falls short in the smallest degree-offending in but “one point” (2:10)—he is wholly condemned. If we want the maximum of God’s thoughts for man we have to turn to Christ, who fully displayed it in His matchless life and death, which went far beyond the bare demands of the law of Moses. In His earliest teachings too He plainly showed that the law of Moses was not the full and perfect thing. See Matt. 5:1717Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. (Matthew 5:17) to 48.
In Christ we have the perfect law, even that of liberty. We might have imagined that if the setting forth of God’s minimum produced bondage the revelation of His maximum would have meant greater bondage still. But no! The minimum reached us in what we may call the law of demand, and generated bondage. The maximum reached us in connection with the law of supply in Christ, and hence all here is liberty. The highest possible standards are set before us in Christianity but in connection with a power which subdues our hearts and gives us a nature which loves to do that which the revelation enjoins upon us. If a law were imposed upon a dog that it should eat hay it would prove to be to the poor animal a law of bondage. Impose the same law upon a horse and it is a law of liberty.
It is clear then, from verse 25, that we are to be doers of the work and not merely hearers of the word. Even our doings however need to be tested, for a man may seem to be religious, zealous in all his works, and yet his religion be proved vain by the fact that he does not bridle his tongue. He has not learned to be “slow to speak” as verse 19 enjoined. In giving rein to his tongue he is giving rein to self.
Now pure and undefiled religion, which will stand in the presence of God, is of a sort which shuts self out. He who visits the fatherless and the widows in their affliction will not find much to minister to the importance or the convenience of self. He will have to be continually ministering instead of finding that which will minister to himself, if he moves amongst these afflicted and poor folk. The world might minister to self in him. Yes, but he keeps himself separate from the world so that he may not be spotted by its defilements.
“Unspotted from the world” (ch. 1:27) is a strong way of putting it. The world is like a very miry place in which all too many love to disport themselves. (see 2 Peter 2:2222But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire. (2 Peter 2:22)). The true Christian does not wallow in the mire. Quite true! But if he practices pure religion he goes further. He walks so apart from the miry place that not even splashes of the mud reach him.
Alas! for the feebleness of our religion. If it consisted in outward observances, in rites, in ceremonies, in sacraments in services, Christendom might yet make a fair show of it. Whereas it really consists in the outflow of divine love which expresses itself in compassion towards and service to those who have no ability to recompense again, and a holy separateness from the defiling world-system that surrounds us.