James — The Outworking of Faith in the Life of a Believer
You don’t often hear anyone state that James is their favorite New Testament author. Usually, it’s Paul or John who earns that distinction—due in part to their warm, wonderful messages of love and grace. His epistle has been compared to the Old Testament book of Proverbs, due to its “terse, moralistic style” [Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps & Charts, p. 455].
I love this book, because James is so direct and practical. He minces no words, but gets right to the point, elucidating how the life of faith consists not just in words, but in actions. He paints several vivid pictures of how our faith in Jesus Christ expresses itself in our speech and conduct.
Although the writer of James identifies himself simply as “a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Jas. 1:1), tradition designates the brother of Jesus (Matt. 13:55, Mark 6:3 & Gal. 1:18-19) [Nelson’s, p. 453]. One of several men by that name in the New Testament, this second eldest son of Mary rose in prominence in the early church after James, the brother of John, was murdered by Herod Antipas (Acts 12:1-2 & 15:13-21).
The content of this book suggest that it was written early in church history—perhaps even predating the authorship of the Gospels themselves. The fact that he refers to early Christian assemblies using the Greek term for synagogue and that there was no mention of Gentile believers would indicate it was written prior to the widespread acceptance of non-Jewish believers into the fellowship of the saints. There is also no indication that the Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15) had taken place. Therefore, many scholars assign a date of A.D. 46-49 for this epistle.
James Chapter 1
The intended audience of this letter is stated in the first verse of the book: “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (Jas. 1:1). This seems to indicate the epistle was written some time after the persecution of the Church initiated by the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1). Clearly, James meant to encourage those who had spread out from Jerusalem into Judea, Samaria and other regions beyond to escape the opposition of unbelieving Jewish leaders.
James’ first concern was to deal with this subject of suffering. He urged his brothers and sisters in Christ to consider their various trials as a source of joy, “knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (Jas. 1:2-3). For us to experience full benefit of suffering requires God’s people to cooperate with Him through the process (v. 4).
When dealing with difficulty, we are told to ask God for wisdom—since He gives generously and without criticism (5). When we ask, we should do so expecting an answer and determined to do as the Lord says, “for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind” (6). God doesn’t generally give to those who already have their own Plan B in mind, since they are “double-minded” and “unstable” (7-8).
Next, James shifts gears to encourage the disadvantaged, saying, “Believers who are poor should be proud, because God has made them spiritually rich” (Jas. 1:9, NCV). The rich, in contrast, must realize how transitory their wealth and ambitions are and how impotent they are in God’s sight (vv. 10-11).
Those who hold onto their faith through temptation, knowing that their reward will be “the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him,” are commended (12). But God is not the source of any temptation, since He “cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone” (13). Rather than accusing the devil as the source, James blames our own sinful desires that entice us to sin (14). He compares sin to human reproduction—telling us desire is conceived, gives birth to sin and eventually matures to deadly proportions (15). He concludes this discussion by urging us not to be deceived this way (16).
In contrast, God is the source of “Every good and perfect gift.” He is referred to as “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning,” who “brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures” (17-18). This idea of ‘firstfruits’ was an Old Testament term—referring to the first and best of a person’s crop, which was dedicated to God and enjoyed by His priests in expectation of more to come (c.f.—Ex. 23:19 & 34:26, Num. 18:12-13, Deut. 18:3-4 & 26:1-11). James may also have been referring to Jeremiah 2:3, which indicated Israel was the firstfruits of peoples dedicated to Him.
James 1:19-20 is a good scripture passage to memorize. It urges us to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to get angry, since human anger does not generally have the positive result God’s does. We need to get rid of the ‘yuck’ in our lives and humbly input God’s word, “which is able to save your souls” (v. 21). It’s important for us not only to hear God’s word, but to do it—otherwise we are as foolish as someone who looks in a mirror and does nothing about the blemishes he/she discovers there (22-24). The person who does something in response to what he finds in God’s word “will be blessed in what he does” (25).
James says anyone who “thinks he is religious,” but doesn’t control his tongue is self-deceived, and his religion is useless (26). True religion, on the other hand, is to take care of widows and orphans when they’re in trouble and to avoid being corrupted by the world (27).
James Chapter 2
James warns believers against partiality in the first several verses of this chapter. He gives an example of a person coming into a meeting wearing fine clothing and expensive jewelry, who is treated with honor; while a poor, shabbily-dressed fellow is disrespected (Jas. 2:1-3). When we treat people differently, we are sitting as unjust judges over them, putting ourselves in the place of God (v. 4). In complete contradiction to our contemporary ‘health/wealth’ doctrine, which dishonors the poor, James asserts that the Lord has “chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him” (5-6). He reminds us that it is most often the rich who oppress others and drag them into court—even blaspheming the name of Christ (7). Showing favoritism violates the ‘royal law,’ contained in Leviticus 19:18—“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Jas. 2:8-9).
James easily transitions to the subject of religious pride. While men frequently congratulate themselves for keeping the Ten Commandments, we all miss the mark at some point (10). One seemingly miniscule infraction is all it takes to make a person a law-breaker. “For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder’” (11). If you manage to obey one rule, but not all, you are guilty and need a Savior.
James urges us to speak and act in a way that respects the fact that we “will be judged by the law of liberty” (12). In a manner akin to the street wisdom, ‘What goes around comes around,’ he warns that “judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy,” but that “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (13). If we want God to be kind and forgiving of us, we need to be understanding toward others, too.
The next several verses discuss the uselessness of alleged faith that is not acted upon. James uses the example wherein a person in desperate circumstances shows up and is merely given a verbal blessing by a so-called believer (14-16) We may have wished the person well, but we did nothing to meet their physical needs for food and clothing. Faith that doesn’t do anything is likewise lifeless (17).
Faith is demonstrative (18). It’s not enough to say we believe in God. Even demons know that—and tremble in His presence (19-20)!
The Hebrews’ forefather, Abraham, was proved right in God’s sight by what he did “when he offered Isaac his son on the altar” (Jas. 2:21; Gen. 22). His faith set godly deeds in action, proving that it was genuine and complete (22). Genesis 15:6 was played out in the patriarch’s life, since “Abraham believed God,” and obeyed the difficult command he was given, “and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Jas. 2:23). Thereafter, the man “was called the friend of God” (c.f.—2 Chron. 20:7 & Is. 41:8).
We, too, are “justified by works, and not by faith only” (Jas. 2:24). In a similar manner, we’re reminded how Rahab the harlot was made right in God’s sight by her faith-motivated actions “when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction” out of respect for YHWH (Jas. 2:25, NIV; c.f.—Josh. 2:1-21 & 6:22-25). Faith and godly deeds are inseparable—“just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:26, HCSB).
James Chapter 3
Here is something we should all remember in our admiration of “upfront” ministers: James tells us that not many of us should aspire to be teachers, since they face stricter judgment (Jas. 3:1).
He concedes that everyone makes mistakes, but if someone manages to keep control of his mouth, he is exceptional and able to control the rest of his body, as well (v. 2). Men are able to control mighty steeds with small bits in their mouths and huge ships with little rudders (3-4).
Conversely, the tongue is a small part of our bodies, but defies our control (5a). Like a raging forest fire, it is able to destroy us, being ignited by the fires of hell itself (5b-6). Men can domesticate every kind of animal, bird, reptile and sea creature, but it’s impossible for us to tame our own tongues (7-8). Worse than a venomous snake, “It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.”
Changing his metaphor, James says it makes about as much sense for a person to use the same organ to bless God and curse those made in His image as it is for fresh and salt water to pour from the same spring (9-11). It’s as ridiculous as a fig tree producing olives or a grapevine bearing figs (12).
Along those same lines of thought, James presents two different types of wisdom: That which comes from above and what comes from below. The truly wise person is proven by good conduct and deeds motivated by humility (13). In contrast, the person driven by envy and selfish ambition is not endowed with godly wisdom, but manifests that which “is earthly, sensual, demonic,” resulting in confusion and every other type of evil (14-16). Wisdom that comes from heaven is pure, peace-loving, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere (17). Its result will be positive and peaceful (18).
James Chapter 4
Flowing from his discussion on the effects of an uncontrolled tongue and the result of demonic wisdom, James addresses the conflicts that are prevalent in any gathering of human beings—including, unfortunately, the church.
On the one hand, we don’t get what we want, because we never bother to ask for it (v. 2b). On other occasions, we aren’t given what we want, because we ask with wrong intentions—“that you may spend it on your pleasures” (3).
Just as the Lord referred to those in the Old Testament who fraternized with pagans and worshiped idols as spiritually unfaithful, so James calls those who love the world and its enticements adulterers and adulteresses. He asks, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (4).
As a follow-up to that statement, James quotes an unknown scripture [probably paraphrased, and possibly taken from Apocryphal writings or the Septuagint] which says, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously” (5). Most Bible versions and commentaries infer that the spirit in question is something evil. However, this ignores the fact that God identified Himself over and over in the Old Testament as Jealous—wanting no competition for our affections or devotion (e.g.—Ex. 20:4-5 & 34:14). He doesn’t want us to desire anything or anyone more than Him, knowing that He alone truly cares for and satisfies us, like nothing and no one else can.
To combat the self-destructive motives and cravings that separate us from God and each other, James says God gives us more grace (Jas. 4:6). Then he quotes Proverbs 3:34, which says: “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” The only cure to an out-of-control tongue and warring desires is to admit we need help.
In verses 7-10 we find James’ simple five-step recovery program to overcome the world:
- “Submit to God”—Stop trying to be in control of your own life; let the Lord take charge instead.
- “Resist the devil”— Don’t run, don’t hide and don’t give in to temptation and evil desires. With God’s help (refer to Step 1), stand up to the devil and he will surely turn tail and run!
- “Draw near to God”—He will not resist the opportunity to be close to the person who earnestly seeks to know and be with Him.
- Repent—“Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (8). We have to stop accommodating sin in our lives and entertaining evil thoughts. We need to be just as upset about the bad things in our lives as God is.
- “Humble yourselves”—Either we humble ourselves and admit God is greater than we are and that we need His help, or He has a way of letting life humiliate us instead. If we do it voluntarily, that’s when God steps in and lifts us up, strengthening and encouraging us, changing us from the inside out.
James warns us not to trash talk each other, asserting that we don’t just judge the other person when we do that, but we also put ourselves in the position of judging, rather than fulfilling the Law (11). I love the way the New American Standard Bible puts verse 12: “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?”
The last few verses of this chapter warn against thinking we can anticipate the future. James chides those who think they can make plans for personal gain without including God (13 & 15). Our lives are as transitory as a puff of smoke; we have no business boasting about what we think we can do (14 & 16). Verse 17 concludes that the person who knows the right thing to do, but doesn’t do it is sinning—something commonly called the ‘sin of omission.’
James Chapter 5
Again, contrary to what we expect, James urges the rich to “weep and howl” in anticipation of the bad stuff coming their way (Jas. 5:1). Their rich clothing and other possessions are as good as rotted; their precious metals have turned to rust—all symbolically testifying to how worthless they really are (vv. 2-3). Not only have they amassed wealth, when they should’ve been working for God, but they have cheated others in the process—whose cries of injustice have come to the attention of YHWH Sabaoth (4). Like a prize bull, they have feasted on the good things of life, only to fatten their hearts for the day of slaughter (5). Some had even gone so far as to condemn innocent men to death—men who didn’t even try to defend themselves (6).
The faithful are encouraged to be patient until the coming of the Lord, just as a farmer anticipates the seasonal rains that nourish his crops (7-8). Again reminding us that the Lord is the only rightful Judge, and that He’s returning soon, James tells us not to complain against each other, so we don’t bring down judgment on ourselves (9). As examples, he cites the prophets and Job, as examples of those who endured suffering and eventually experienced God’s mercy (10-11). We’re reminded not to swear—either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath—but to be a man or woman of our word, so that we aren’t judged for what we say (12).
Another aspect of the life of faith is how we deal with difficulties. In verse 13, James says, “Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises” (NASB). Whether in good times or bad, the Lord desires a relationship with us. He wants us to constantly interact with Him.
For the sick, James’ prescription is prayer. In verse 14, he urges those who are weak/feeble/ill to call the elders of the church to anoint them with oil and pray for them in Jesus’ name. “[T]he prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him” (15). The connection between sin and sickness is further reinforced, in verse 16, which encourages individuals, “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (NASB).
As an example of how effective our prayers can be, James cites the example of Elijah the prophet—“a man with a nature like ours,” who prayed first that it wouldn’t rain, resulting in a 3½ year drought (17). When he later prayed for rain, it came, and the land was productive again (18).
James’ letter ends with an encouragement from Proverbs 10:12 that whoever helps a wayward person find his way back to the Lord “will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (19-20).
As James’ letter to the Christ-following Jews indicates, it’s not enough for us to say we believe in the Lord Jesus. Our words and our actions need to demonstrate it. We can’t just say and do what we please; we can’t continue to live for ourselves. We need to let the Lord take charge of our lives, so we can deal with temptation and other challenges head-on. His love and wisdom should be our guide, so that others can see our faith and desire it, too.
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible—© 1982, by Thomas Nelson, Inc.