James, often called the Proverbs of the New Testament, is addressed to an interesting audience: the dispersed believers around the world.
The book was likely written by Jesus’ brother, James. Its main audience and readers of this letter were chased out of Jerusalem.
It’s important to remember that this letter is addressed to Jewish Christians.
It is notoriously difficult to outline James. Proposed outlines range from 2 to 25 different sections. (1.)
No other New Testament book contains as many commands. (2.)
James uses more figures of speech and analogies, alludes to over 20 Old Testament books.
G. Campbell Morgan argues there are many allusions to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount—more than in all the letters of the New Testament combined. (3.)
James & Luther
Luther challenged the authorship and questioned whether James should be part of the canon of Scripture. He points out there are only two references to Jesus (James 1:1, James 2:1)
Writing in what is now titled “Luther’s Works, Vol 35,” he’s describing books of the Bible. An example:
“In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine.”
Luther also writes,
“Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw,11compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” (4.)
Faith & Works
“James develops the theme of the characteristics of true faith. He effectively uses these characteristics as a series of tests to help his reader evaluate the reality of their relationship to Christ. The purpose of this work is *not doctrinal or apologetic but practical,* as James seeks to challenge these believers to examine the quality of their daily lives in terms of attitudes and actions.
A genuine faith will produce real changes in a person’s conduct and character, and the absence of change is a symptom of a dead faith.” (5.)
Themes in James
How many have heard this and thought: I have to be excited about my trials.
How do we look at a trial biblically?
Notice: “my brethren” is used 15 times, it’s an endearing address.
Trials are not punishment or discipline for something we’ve done, only. In an if-then culture, when something bad happens, we think, “what have I done wrong and what do I need to do to fix it?”
To re-define this, these trials are really more that we’re being put to a test.
In James 1:12, using the same word, James says the person who perseveres under trials is blessed.
Could we consider, rather than being joyful in trials: finding joy in trials?
What James is saying is that finding joy is not in the trial itself, but in the knowledge (v. 3, the knowing) that this testing will produce endurance, which is a good thing because endurance can result in maturity.
- The only way we mature is through endurance.
- The only way we learn endurance is through trials.
You can find joy in a trial if you know that as you go through it you will learn endurance, and endurance can result in maturity.
If we connect these verses with the aforementioned joyful endurance, this makes so much sense. Endurance can have the effect of making us mature—but what if we don’t know how to joyfully endure? We need wisdom!
How do we find wisdom? We ask God, in faith, and believe Him at His word.
Man has been looking for wisdom and answers as long as he has been on the planet.
When you have a problem or a trial, where do you go first? Who is the first person you reach out to? What’s the first thing you do?
A novel idea: Ask God. Ask in faith.
It’s a recalibrating formula: God’s sovereign, this is providential, God loves me, I’m a sinner, and I need help.
The argument James is building is:
- Trials are going to come
- Enduring trials can produce maturity
- Knowing this produces joy, but—
- We need wisdom to joyfully endure
- We get wisdom by asking God for wisdom
The faith v. works tension will always be with us. The problem is: do good works prove salvation? Paul has spent incredible ink saying we’re justified by faith alone. James sets us on our heels by saying we have to show good works or our faith is dead.
What I would argue what he’s saying is: there will be things in life we won’t be able to figure out. But are we going to trust God, ask for help, and endure?
James is underscoring a life of faith in the God of the universe as our first priority. As a result of understanding the Gospel, there ought to be some kind of change in affection. Your life and mine should be lived as a thank You back to God, showing gratitude through a life of faithful obedience.
Not unlike trials, we can learn joy if we endure. We can learn wisdom if we trust God. Now: we can learn obedience when we are tempted.
We don’t talk a lot about temptation. We talk a lot about identity, our passion, how we’re wired…that language has very subtly changed many Christians’ worldviews. We’ve put our affections above His.
When facing temptation:
- Recognize temptation is never from God
- Admit we are tempted by our own lusts (lust of the eye, lust of the flesh, the boastful pride of life…or, money, sex, and power)
- Pay close attention to how we fail when tempted.
From these verses about the effect of temptation:
Enticed by his own lust
Lust is conceived and gives birth to sin (what a picture!)
Sin is accomplished, brings forth death
“So a person both builds and baits his own trap.” (6.)
Summary warning: do not be deceived.
A 3-fold instruction:
James will pick up again on “doers” in James 1:25
Why is it so hard to obey? We want our own way.
These admonitions always give me pause: Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. This is pretty much the opposite of the way I operate. You?
- James 1:26 bridle his tongue
- James 1:27 pure and undefiled religion – the sacrificial language James uses is reminiscent of the Old Testament. The original hearers would’ve related this immediately to Old Testament sacraments. The directive to care for orphans and widows is an idiom—care for the entire spectrum of those who are the most vulnerable in life.
- James 2:1 personal favoritism
- James 2:9 if you show partiality, you are committing sin.
Obviously, I’m not able to delve into the faith and works section in detail, but the idea is that there’s got to be some change following conversion. I can’t measure it and it’s dangerous to try to measure it but to understand the gospel ought to result in some kind of personal change in your life.
Submit, resist, draw near, cleanse, purify, be miserable, mourn and weep, let your laughter be turned into mourning, humble yourselves…and He will exalt you.
James is saying: when you live in the tension of sin, when you know what obedience would be and you’re not doing it, you ought to mourn and weep about that. We need God’s help because we are sinners. We are stubborn, we want our way. It’s dangerous stuff.
This is sacrificial language that the original hearers would’ve understood deeply.
Finally, if God wills:
Don’t be presumptuous. Don’t plan without God. We do not know what our lives will be like tomorrow. Our life is but a vapor.
James doesn’t just say, “have a pessimistic outlook on life,”—he says to say, “if the Lord wills…”
We live our lives without God—until we need God. And we’re missing out on so much.
Because we do not know the length of our life or the number of our days, there is a far better way to live: to ask, to say, to pray:
“if God wills…”
What a great underscore.
- Robert G. Gromacki, New Testament Survey, p. 341, and Easton and Poteat, p. 18, cited by Hiebert, 36.
- Kenneth G. Hanna, From Gospels to Glory, p. 409.
- G. Campbell Morgan, The Unfolding Message of the Bible, p. 382. See Virgil V. Porter Jr., “The Sermon on the Mount in the Book of James, Part 1,” Bibliotheca Sacra 162:647 (JulySeptember 2005):344-60; idem, “The Sermon on the Mount in the Book of James, Part 2,” Bibliotheca Sacra 162:648 (October-December 2005):470-82. See the charts in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, pp. 817 and 818, for James’ references to nature and the Sermon on the Mount.
- On the term “straw” cf. Luther’s reference on p. 395 to 1 Cor. 3:12. Luther’s sharp expression may have been in part a reaction against Karlstadt’s excessive praise of the book of James. Cf. WA, DB 6, 537, n. 10, 6–34, and the literature there listed.
- Bruce Wilkinson and Kenneth Boa, Talk Thru the Bible(Nashville: T. Nelson, 1983), 465.
- J. Ronald Blue, “James,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 822.