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James 1

Scripture: James 1:1-27

Overview:

  • James, a dude who prefers to be known as a man born anew as Christ’s permanent slave rather than Jesus’ brother (and therefore potential equal), gives a shout out to his fellow Jews who are living outside of their homeland and having a rough time.
  • Jim tells his peeps, “If you are in a trying time in your life you should be glad about it because trials produce sturdy resolve, and sturdy resolve will develop you into mature, godly individuals.”
  • He also tells them that if they need wisdom (i.e. knowledge about the right way to act in their present circumstance), to ask God for it. He’s a nice guy and gives people things. James then says, “But if you’re going to ask, do so wholeheartedly, with a singular dedication to God as the solution. Half-asking does nothing. Half-askers are like boats without masts, tossed and turned in the sea without aim. God is your aim. Your commitment to him is your mast. Half-askers shouldn’t expect to get anything.”
  • Jimmy reminds them that being poor is in a higher position in God’s view than being rich. “The fat cats,” Jimbo says, “may think they’ve got it all and are ‘blessed by God’, but what they have is temporary, like flowers in a field. Yeah, they look awesome today, but tomorrow they’re dried up and dead. Their ‘riches’ won’t stand the test of time.”
  • “The real person blessed by God is the one who stands strong through the bad times. That dude (or dudette) will get the types of riches from God that are everlasting.”
  • Jimmy Jam then reminds the Jewish Christians that God isn’t the one who brings temptation to them. God isn’t tempted and he doesn’t tempt. “Temptation to do the wrong thing in times like these comes from your own desires grabbing hold of you–snagging you like a fish on a hook–and dragging you off. Once temptation has you it percolates into sin and then produces death.”
  • “Good stuff is what God gives us,” James says. “God always is associated with good stuff. He’s stable, like the sun and moon and stars (which he’s in charge of, FYI). He doesn’t change and give you evil temptations one day and good things the next. Always good stuff–that’s our God. He’s even given us the opportunity to be born again through the truth he spoke to us so that we could be among the best people he’s ever made.”
  • James tells his readers to remember they have two ears and one mouth. Respect the ratio. “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and even slower to get angry. Anger doesn’t bring you closer to who God wants you to be. Strive to be pure, God-like, not like the world. Humbly listen to God, that’s how we find salvation.”
  • “And don’t just listen to what God says and think you’ve got it and all is well… Act on it!” Jamie reminds them. “Hearing something from God and not obeying it is like studying your own face in a mirror–really concentrating on it–then turning away and forgetting what you look like. You should really concentrate on the new covenant we have with God, the one that sets us free. Think on it, then act on it, that’s what will put you in the right place with God.”
  • James concludes that some people say they’re religious, but they let their mouths run amok. That’s not cool. You want to be “religious” James says, “Real religion, in God’s eyes, is taking care of the powerless (like the widows and orphans), and trying to be like God, not the world.”

Historical Context:

Blessings from God

Based upon God’s covenant promises with Israel (Deuteronomy 28-31), individual Jews were inclined to expect God to bless them materially in response to pious living. Conversely, they expected that those who did evil were to experience divine discipline in various forms. God was to bless them for doing good and to punish others for their sin.2

James brings up the topics of wealth and poverty to further his argument about faithfulness to God. In the Jewish mind, wealth was the measure of one’s piety. The pious were expected to prosper, while the wicked were to suffer. James is looking to challenge this paradigm, just as Jesus did with the story of the “rich man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31). The rich and the poor need to see their circumstances from an eternal perspective to determine their true standing with God.2

Logic of suffering

James challenges some basic “worldly” (or sometimes “religious”) logic people have regarding their circumstances. Consider these syllogisms and what James offers as an alternative:

Paradigm 1:

  • God controls all things
  • Bad things happen to people
  • Therefore God is controlling the bad things that happen to people

Paradigm 1 – James’ perspective:

  • God and sin don’t mix
  • When people follow their own desires it results in sin
  • Sin is the cause of bad things
  • Therefore, bad things are the result of people’s choices, not God’s

Paradigm 2:

  • God blesses those he loves, curses those he does not
  • Wealth and comfort are blessings, pain and poverty are a curse
  • Therefore, those who suffer are not loved by God, those who prosper are

Paradigm 2 – James’ perspective:

  • God uses his power to help the powerless
  • Being powerless means God is close to you, helping you
  • Having power means you are close to God only if you use it as he would

Paradigm 3:

  • We live in a cause and effect universe
  • Understanding the source of the cause can change the effect
  • Pain is an effect
  • Pain is negative/unpleasant experience in the present
  • Finding a cause will stop the pain in the present

Paradigm 3 – James’ perspective

  • Like gold refined by fire, pain is a means of improvement–a positive future result
  • If you are in pain, you have the opportunity to be improved
  • Embrace the opportunity, because future improvement is a good thing

Religion

The Greek word James uses for “religious,” threskos (used only here in the New Testament), describes someone who fears or worships God. In particular, it refers to the outward consequences of what one believes (i.e., piety, good works), rather than to what he believes, or the fact that he believes deeply.8

The Jews typically regarded alms-giving, prayer, fasting, regular attendance at worship services, and the observance of holy days and feasts—as signs of true spirituality. However, the care of orphans and widows was a religious activity often overlooked despite God’s frequent reminders (Exod. 22:22-24; Deut. 10:18; Isa. 1:17; Jer. 5:28; Ezek. 22:7; Zech. 7:10).8

James insists that a person’s religion must consist of more than superficial acts. It is not enough to listen to the statement of spiritual truth, nor is it sufficient to engage in formal religious activity. The person whose religious experience is genuine will put spiritual truth into practice, and his life will be marked by love for others and holiness before God. A better test of spirituality is their actions towards the oppressed, and a person’s control of their own tongue.8

The real test of religion is how one who is strong deals with those who are weak. The biblical model is that the strong use their strengths to minister to the needs of the weak.2

It is easier to intellectualize faith than to incarnate faith. It is easier to study Scripture than to obey it. It is easier to follow rituals than to care for widows and orphans who are in need.2

Sermon on the Mount Parallels4,2

James’ letter Jesus’ sermon on the mount
 “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (Js 1:4) “Be ye therefore perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48)
 “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.” (Js 1:5) “How much more shall your Father who is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Matthew 7:11)
 “Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.” (Js. 1:8) “No one can serve two masters.” (Mt 6:19-24)
“Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position.” (Js 1:9) “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
“But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower.” (Js 1:10) “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt 19:24)
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds (Js 1:2)

“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.” (Js 1:12)

“Blessed are you when men shall persecute you … rejoice and be exceeding glad” (Matthew 5:11,12).

Observations:

  • James, Paul, Timothy, Peter, Jude, and Epaphras were all designated as slaves of Christ in the New Testament. The Greek word for “slave,” doulos, means “one born into slavery.” Thus, the New Testament writer’s usage of the term implies that individuals had been “born again” as slaves to Jesus.4
  • James says his letter’s recipients are “scattered among the nations,” thereby effectively communicating to his Jewish audience that he knows that they are persecuted and suffering as their ancestors did in exile.1
  • The Greek word for “greetings” is chairein, which means, “joy be to you.”1
  • James implies that Christians should expect adversity as the rule rather than the exception.2
  • The Greek word for “testing” is dokimion which refers to a “test to prove genuine.” This is not the type of test used to display one’s knowledge (like a student exam), this is the type of test meant to reveal the true nature of an object (such as a metal in a forge). James uses it in the context of revealing the genuineness of a person’s faith.1
  • James indicates that perseverance is not end in itself, but rather a lifestyle by which disciples attain maturity.1
  • The Greek word for “patience” is hupomone from hupo (under) and meno (to stay, abide, remain). At its root, it means to remain under. This word does not describe a passive waiting, but an active endurance. It isn’t so much the quality that helps you sit quietly in the doctor’s waiting room as it is the quality that helps you finish a marathon.6  In ancient terminology, this is the quality that enables a sailor to stay on his feet when facing a storm.8  This is courageous endurance, not docile submission.4
  • James does not portray suffering and trials as an evil, from which the Christian should seek to escape. James does not even encourage his readers to pray that God would deliver them from their trials. Quite differently, James urges his readers to joyfully embrace their trials, knowing they are from God and for a good purpose. We are told to pray when we fall into various trials, not for deliverance, but for wisdom.2
  • In trials, James emphasizes wisdom, not knowledge. Knowledge is raw information, but wisdom knows how to use it. Knowledge is the ability to take things apart, but wisdom is the ability to put things together.6
  • Often our response to trials is anger. We often say (or think), “look how God treats us!” We often take out our resentment against those around us, becoming self-pitying while judging others. We often feel “wronged” under our trials, and seek to find someone to blame.7
  • The term “double-minded” (1:8) means, literally, a double-souled person, a person whose heart’s loyalties are divided. Doubt, then, is the vacillation between choices — self-reliance and God-reliance.1
  • The natural state of those who suffer is to ask, “Why did this happen to me? Where did I go wrong? Is God punishing me? Does God love me?”James encourages his readers to seek wisdom at these times, which is not simply looking answers (knowledge), but applying their knowledge of God to the situation. James effectively tells his readers “doing the right thing” in the midst of suffering is better than gaining a full understanding of the suffering.
  • James begins 1:12 with “blessed,” like it’s a new beatitude.
  • James encourages Christians in humble circumstances not to be deceived by the apparent security of the rich for two reasons. 1) The wealth of a rich person cannot shield him from being humbled. 2) The rich person, too, will pass away.1
  • James calls Christians to believe that the crown of eternal life is worth more than any advantage to be gained by money in this life.1
  • James outlines two paths his readers can follow. In 1:3:  Trial => Testing => Perseverance => Maturity; Or, in 1:13: Trial => Temptation => Sin => Death.1
  • To James, the greatest danger his readers face is not the wrong being done to them but the wrong they may do as a result.1
  • Failure to acknowledges God as the provider of blessings is an issue of major consequence, to James. It is important for the author that his audience remember that in the midst of the trials God has good gifts for them.1
  • James sums up four key elements of faith: (1) faith is not quick-tempered (1:19-21); (2) faith is not passive (1:22-25); (3) faith shows itself in having a tight rein on the tongue (1:26); and (4) faith helps widows and orphans—that is, those who cannot repay (1:27).5

Discussion:

  • Pain and discomfort are generally considered bad in our society. There are certain contexts in which they may be thought of as positive (ex. physical pain during of exercise), but for the most part, they’re negative (ex., physical pain in disease). Discomfort is something we generally seek to resolve quickly, or avoid all together, and our society is fixated on developing solutions for any stress-producing temporal issues. How is James encouraging us to look at pain and discomfort differently? How does Jesus’ life and death and resurrection reframe the experiences of pain and God’s perspective on discomfort? If pain during exercise is acceptable because of the outcome, how might we reframe the outcome of our own discomfort to see it differently? Can if be reframed?
  • James says some pretty negative things about wealthy people. What does God think of the wealthy? What do you think modern day American Christians (arguably, a very wealthy group of people) should take from this? What should we do/think differently?
  • James says, “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.” How are we doing by this standard? Is this what we really think? What are we doing right? What can we be doing better?

References:

  1. IVP commentary
  2. Deffinbaugh’s commentary
  3. Hawkins’ commentary
  4. Coffman’s commentary
  5. Wallace’s commentary
  6. Blue Letter commentary
  7. James commentary
  8. Constable’s commentary
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2 thoughts on “James 1

  1. Pingback: The Mountain: Radical Love | From guestwriters

  2. Pingback: The Mountain: Radical Love | From guestwriters

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