1James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.
James takes the familiar identity of a bond-servant in his greeting, evidencing his humility and obedience to His Lord Jesus Christ. This James is the brother of Jude and the half-brother of Christ. He is not James the son of Zebedee because he was martyred too early to have written this letter (see Acts 12:1-2). This James is the James who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He writes specifically to the Jews who have been dispersed, perhaps due to Herod’s (Herod Agrippa I) ongoing persecution.
2Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials,
3knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.
4And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Similar to Peter in his first epistle, James writes to those who have been dispersed and encourages them as they face trials of many kinds. He tells them to have all joy in trials. Trials are not joyous in themselves, but we are to consider them as all joy. This is because when we encounter them we can know that as our faith is tested it is also refined. Testing of our faith produces endurance so that we are able to persevere in our faith. When we see that our faith sustains us during difficult times, it becomes more and more precious to us, something that we hold more firmly to. The more we hold firm to our faith and endure difficulties for Christ’s sake we become more and more like Him. In fact, suffering has a way of working sin out of our lives. We realize that this life is not our home and the be all end all. We choose to focus on the life to come in light of our present pain. As 1 Peter 4:1 says, “He who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” God uses trials to test our faith, not so much so that He can know if we have faith, for He knows all. Rather, God seeks to give us the chance to bring Him glory by standing firm, thus filling our joy and increasing our faith.
5But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.
6But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.
7For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord,
8being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
God gives us a great promise here through James. There are multitudes of times in life when we lack wisdom. What we must understand is that the Bible is not merely a code of ethics where we can look up a certain letter and number and find an answer. We need to know the Scriptures and we need the Holy Spirit to illumine our minds so that we can apply the Scriptures. We need to be able to determine how God is leading in a circumstance, and we must ask him for wisdom. It is a simple prayer to ask for wisdom, but it must be done in faith. Only the person who is convinced that they cannot do ministry or life on their own apart from Christ is the one who will admit that they lack wisdom. Upon this admission they must ask for it in faith, a step requiring a humility and willingness to pray and call upon God for help. This calling must be in faith and with no doubting. We must believe that we have received what we have asked. If we don’t believe, we should not expect to have our prayers answered. We must have absolute confidence in the fact that God delights in giving His children wisdom if only they would come to Him with open hearts and ask in faith. Those who doubt are unstable and double-minded. They are unsteady in their walk with God, one day standing strong and another day giving into sin or doubt. They doubt God’s character or His promises. Such a man cannot experience the fullness of God’s promise and the filling of the Spirit. Faith is essential in living the abundant Christian life. The doubter is like the surf of the sea. However the wind blows and with whatever force and direction, so too is the man who doubts blown about. God calls us to be anchored upon the truth of His Word no matter what the circumstances. We need to have faith, especially when being tried and tested.
9But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position;
10and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away.
11For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.
Because of our standing in Christ being seated with Him in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6), we can glory in our high position even if we are the last on the earth. After all, the last shall be first and the first shall be last (Mark 10:31). If a rich man boasts and flaunts his riches, trying to find his joy in them, he will be disappointed. As the grass flowers and fades, so he too will pass away. He can’t take his riches with him, and if he hasn’t honored God in this life God will not honor him in the next. This is why we must understand this life to be temporary, a mere vapor that is here and then gone. We must live in light of the life to come. Thus if we are poor and someone else is rich, it doesn’t matter so much as long as we know we are rich in the life to come because we have been wise stewards of the kingdom of Christ and of the resources with which He has entrusted us. If we are rich, we are to glory in our humiliation. That means that we must rejoice not in what we have, for we will be “humiliated” when we have to leave it all behind. The rich man must glory in what is to come, and thus he ought to live with kingdom values and purposes, not making an idol of his wealth. One day Christ will come to judge and like the sun scorch all who boast in their possessions. They will be judged for unfaithfulness and will fade away into judgment and hell.
12Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.
The man is blessed who does not give into doubt or sin despite difficulty and trial. He understands that trials are part of life, and that Christ will see Him through each and every one. That Christ will go through trials with us does not mean that they will not hurt or even bring us to our physical death. It simply means that He will sustain our faith and testimony throughout them so that our joy can be full despite the suffering. This will prove our faith similarly to how presenting our bodies as living sacrifices proves what the will of God is. We will formally be approved in the sense that we will be formally adopted as sons into the kingdom upon our endurance under the trials of this life. Then we will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who receive His Son in faith (see also Revelation 2:10). Notice that saving faith produces obedience, though not all do well. Sometimes even a firm believer will choose to sin or be deceived. Yet we can be confident that God will keep such a person for no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
13Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.
14But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.
15Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.
God does not tempt us as if He is leading us into sin. He allows trials because suffering is not that which tempts us to sin. It is when we are enticed by the devil who must appeal to our flesh that we may get carried away by lust into sin. It is never God’s fault that we sin. God is not tempted himself by evil, and He does not tempt anyone. God has no stake in evil, only in good. He doesn’t do evil, nor does He cause someone to do evil. The Scriptures say that God hardens a person, but we can take that to mean that the person has made a choice to give into temptation by the devil and has let the lusts of his flesh carry him away. Pharaoh was responsible for hardening his heart even though God was sovereignly hardening it for him. Somehow the two co-exist. What we must understand is that we cannot pass our sin off on God, for God gives us a responsibility to obey and not choose to sin. It is our fault for giving into the lusts of the flesh, for we are not compelled to do so. We must indulge it and let it carry us away into sin. Once we have sinned and sin has done its work, we will experience the consequences of sin in some way. The unbeliever who sins will face the wages of death in hell. The believer who sins will (as well as the unbeliever) experience a death of the ability to bear fruit, enjoy God, experience close fellowship with God, love others properly, and have freedom from the bonds of sin. When we sin, we willingly subject ourselves to sin and Satan. We, in a sense, make ourselves bond-servants of the devil rather than of God. Sin always has harmful affects that lead to death. Some bring us closer to death than others because some sin does more harm than others. But all sin erodes our sensitivity to God and our ability to hear His voice and do His will. There is a sort of soul death involved as the mind is compromised and the heart’s affections jeopardized. Yet the spirit will never die for it has been made alive in Christ.
16Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.
17Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
18In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.
James has already explained that God does not do the work of Satan in tempting us. Now he is warning us to not be deceived into thinking that good things come from any other source than God. Satan does not bless us, though he may work to keep us feeling satiated in our sin. He will not, however, give us what we really need, which sometimes is suffering to draw us to Christ. He will bring us pain, but it is never for our good. God, on the other hand causes all things to work for our good (Romans 8:28). We can rejoice in the character of our God, for He is the giver of every good and perfect gift. God does not change. There are no variables with the character and nature of God. He is always good. As the sun moves across the sky, the shadows move and change. God, however, is not like that. He made the light of the sun, and though the sun moves and the moon revolves around the earth, He doesn’t change. He is always good. Whenever something good happens, whenever a prayer is answered, and whenever we see spiritual fruit and growth, we can be confident that God is at work. Satan never gives good things. This is helpful in determining the will of God. If something is bearing spiritual fruit and is edifying, it is not the work of Satan. If prayers are being answered for the kingdom to advance, this is God’s work and not the devil’s. If God gives just the blessing and intervention that we need in His perfect way and timing, we can know that the gift is perfect and from Him. God’s sovereign plan was to send Christ and to cause sinners to be born again to salvation by the word of truth of the gospel. Man is the firstfruits of those who will be redeemed. The creation too, which presently groans for its redemption (Romans 8:22), will also be changed.
19This you know, my beloved brethren But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger;
20for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.
21Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.
James tells us that we must know about what he is going to say (better translated in the ESV). It is imperative that all believers are quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. When man is angry and wrathful, seeking his purposes and acting as if he must take matters into his own hand, he does not accomplish the will of God. God’s work is to avenge, not man’s. Man does no good when he loses his temper and lets his emotions rage. There is no righteousness in ungodly anger, especially when it is out of control. Being quick to hear means that we are quick to humble ourselves under the admonition and instruction of the Lord. We are quick to listen and respond to God’s Word. It also means that we are more interested in what others have to say that in our own personal agendas. Rather than talking somebody’s ear off about our own life, we make a point of it to ask them about theirs, being careful to remember things that have been going on in their life. Too many are quick to open their mouth and they stick their foot in their mouth by saying foolish things or things that they will later regret. We must choose our words carefully, being slow to speak. We must ask ourselves before we say something if what we are going to say will build others up and if it is wholesome before the Lord. Also, there is a matter of self-control when it comes to talking. Some people need to learn when to stop talking and making captive audiences. We need to respect others time.
Becoming slow to anger is something that comes easier to some than it does others. Some react by ignoring and are not quick to hear. Some react by speaking and are not careful with their word selection. Others are quick to lose their temper and act out with physical force or words. None of these things are spiritual. We are to be slow to anger and slow to speak but quick to listen. We are to make a choice which we can do by the power of Christ in us to lay aside all that remains of wickedness and filthiness. We are Christ’s and the Holy Spirit indwells us. Why do we grieve Him by making Him live in the presence of unconfessed sin? I can’t imagine how much that hurts Him. There is no excuse for hanging on to fleshly lusts and sin patterns. There is no place for saying that “I just have a temper and that is how I deal with things” or “I just can’t help myself” or “I just tend to be a blabbermouth so if I start blabbering just put up with it” or “I’m just not a good listener.” God says we don’t have reason to make excuses. Such reasoning blasphemes the work that Christ accomplished on the cross in enabling us to become slaves of righteousness, to reign in life, and to present our members as members of righteousness. We have already received the Word of God in our souls through which we were born again. Romans 10:17 reminds us that we served saved by faith which came from hearing the Word of Christ. James 1:18 explained that we have already been born from the word of truth. As such, we are saved, and we do not need to receive the Word over and over again in the sense of repentance unto salvation. What we are to do is heed the Word of God, which is where James is about to go. Receiving the Word of truth involves not just listening to a sermon but acting upon the Word of God. This is how we receive it. This is what the Scripture means when it says that we are to “let the word of God dwell in us richly” (Colossians 3:16). We are to obey it and let it affect our behavior.
22But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.
23For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror;
24for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.
A mere hearer of the word who does not act upon it does not really receive the Word of God. Yet it is easy for such a person to deceive themselves into thinking they are living for Christ and bearing fruit when they are not. They hear God’s Word in the Bible study and on Sunday morning, so they think they must be growing. Yet if they never live out the commands of Christ, no change has really happened. They may have more Bible knowledge but they are no more of a pleasing, living sacrifice to Christ. The purpose of our hearing the Word of God is growth, change, and a revelation of any unconfessed sin. It makes no sense to look into a mirror, see a frazzled mess, and not do anything about it. We are very careful to get our outer person looking just right before going out in public or when going to church. Yet are we this careful with the inner person? God is more concerned with the state of our heart when we assemble ourselves together than He is about whether or not we have brushed our teeth (though that may be important to others). We need to deal with the spiritual mars, wrinkles, spots, and stains. This is the issue. The Word is a mirror to our soul, and we must use it to cleanse ourselves through confession and an appropriation of the blood of Christ.
25But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.
When we use the Word of God as a mirror, looking intently at it and then making the appropriate corrections, we are an effectual doer and will be blessed in what we do. This is because this allows us to live consistently in a matter that is consecrated to Christ. We should look in the mirror of God’s Word as frequently as we do in real life. I bet we look in the mirror a couple dozen times in one day. If we did this with our meditation upon the Word of God, we would be able to purify ourselves by confessing any sin that is present. Living free from sin and in obedience to Christ allows us to be filled with His Spirit, experience His favor and blessing, and bear fruit in abundance for the kingdom. The perfect law is the law of Christ, the law of liberty. This is living according to the will of God as the Spirit leads us. He will never lead us against the law of God and the commands of Christ, though we are not under the Old Testament Law.
26If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is worthless.
27Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Many people consider themselves to be religious. Often implied by that statement is that they think that they are holy and righteous. What James is saying is that such an assertion is false if a person doesn’t control his tongue (slow to speak and slow to anger). If he is not careful to look into the mirror of God’s Word, he will deceived by the state of his own heart. We are not even able to do adequate self-examination without the Word of God because of how we can be deceived. A person’s religion is worthless if they are not able to live in obedience to Christ. The true evidence of saving faith is whether or not a person is able to live in victory over sin. Obedience is not conditional for salvation but a clear evidence of it. It is not perfect obedience, but it can be consistent and persistent obedience if we are faithful to look repeatedly into the mirror of God’s Word. James message to us is that we need to live out our faith. It is not good to just hear the Bible and know its content if it has no impact upon how we live our lives, particularly in respect to sin. So if a person was trying to be religious, they would have to be perfectly without stain from the things of the world. They would need to be servants of all, giving care to orphans and widows. No man would ever be able to do this perfectly on their own, for they are born with a propensity to sin. Fortunately, we are made righteous through the blood of Christ through faith. That faith is to lead to righteousness so that we can more and more and better and better live in a way that is undefiling and full of acts of service. As we learn to appropriate faith and as Christ deals with leftover sin from our life apart from Christ (and some from our life with Christ), we will be able to better live out this pure and undefiled “religion.”