James 5

Scripture: James 5:1-20

Overview:

  • Jim calls out the rich folk saying, “Yo, One-Percenters, listen up! Bust out your gold plated tissue boxes. Weepy time has come.”
  • James goes on, “You hoarded your wealth so much, it has become useless, even to you. All those nice clothes in your closet? Eaten up by moths. All those gold coins stacked in your safe? They haven’t moved in so long they’ve corroded. And you’ve done all this at the most critical time in history, the time right before God establishes his kingdom on earth!”
  • Jimmy Jay reminds them that the money they owe to their workers is shouting through a megaphone in God’s ears–the God who has an army at his fingertips, who can bring judgment at any moment.
  • “You rich people,” Jamie says, “are like dumb, fat, stall-enclosed, lazy cows–stupidly and ignorantly chewing up giant bails of hay on the very day you’re going to be turned into hamburgers. You hurt innocent people, for no reason. Bad idea.”
  • James then whips around and tells his readers, “But you guys, have patience. God is coming. Don’t do anything rash, though you’re being oppressed.”
  • Jay Jay then shares the analogy of a farmer patiently waiting for his crops to grow, knowing that he can’t control the weather and the timing. He just has to wait for the harvest and hope for the best.
  • “The same is true with you,” Jammy Jim says. “So don’t get impatient and fight with each other about how to control the situation–you can’t. You’ll be sorry if you fight amongst yourselves. God’s judgment is right around the corner.”
  • James then reminds them of Job and the prophets, all whom endured crappy circumstances until God came through for them.
  • “Don’t make deals with God,” Jay says. “Don’t make contingent promises with anyone, just be real. Be honest with each other. If you say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ simply mean it.”
  • “Are you sad? Then pray. Are you happy? Then pray by singing. Are you sick? Then get the leaders of your church to come over, give you some medicine, and pray for you,” James advises.
  • James tells them that faithful people are good at praying and that they can help physically heal people. And if someone’s illness is spiritual in nature, they will be forgiven, too.
  • “Pray and talk honestly with each other,” Jimbo says. “Share your issues, your struggles, your hopes and failures with each other, then pray about it. The prayers of people in alignment with God will release his power into the world.”
  • James goes on to say, “Remember Elijah, that super awesome prophet? Yeah, well, he put on his robes one leg at a time,  just like the rest of us. But because he believed in God and lined up his life with God’s will, he was able to pray his nation in and out of a three year drought. Dang!”
  • James closes out his letter by telling his peeps that they should pursue anyone who has left the church. Helping someone finds forgiveness washes away all their faults. It covers up the problems and gives them new life.

Historical Context:

The Rich

James seems to be reiterating many of the same ideas and feelings that Jesus had toward the rich. See the verses below and note the tenor of the comments.1

  • You cannot serve both God and Money. (Matthew 6:19-24)
  • Wealth was one of the reasons the “seed” in the parable of the sower did not take root. (Matthew 13:22.)
  • It is very hard for the rich to enter the kingdom. (Matthew 19:23-24)
  • The rich are compared unfavorably to the poor widow who gave everything she had to the temple. (Mark 12:41)
  •  Mary thanks God for caring for the poor and sending the rich away empty. (Luke 1:53)
  • Blessed are you who are poor. . . . But woe to you who are rich. (Luke 6:20, 24)
  • The rich man in the parable is declared a fool. (Luke 12:16-21)
  • Jesus tells his host to invite not his rich neighbors but the poor to a meal. (Luke 14:12-14)
  • The Pharisees are characterized as ones who love money. (Luke 16:1-15)
  • In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man is in torment in hell, while the poor man Lazarus is blessed to be at Abraham’s side. (Luke 16:19-31)

 Lord of Sabaoth

The NIV translates James 5:4 as  the cries of the oppressed reaching the ears of “the Lord Almighty” The literal translation is “the Lord of Sabaoth,” or as it is translated elsewhere, “the Lord of Hosts,” which is more properly understood as the “God of the heavenly armies,” or the “God of the heavenly hosts (such as the sun, moon and stars),” or the “God of all the armies of angels arranged in an orderly host.”1

This is a quotation from Isaiah 5:9 (also used by Paul in Romans 9:29) in which God is warning Israel of its impending destruction because of its careless attitude in keeping his “vineyard” or laws and national focus. This is an expression for the omnipotence of God, and a comment on his ability to bring vengeance and judgment. James is reminding his readers that God hears the cries of the oppressed workmen even if the employers are deaf.6

Farming in Israel

In the climate of Palestine there are two rainy seasons on which the harvest essentially depends–the autumnal and the spring rains.2

The autumnal rains usually commence in the latter half of October or the beginning of November; not suddenly, but by degrees, which gives opportunity for a farmer to sow his fields of wheat and barley. The rains come mostly from the west or south-west, continuing for two or three days at a time, and failing especially during the nights. The wind then chops round to the north or east, and several days of fine weather succeed. During the months of November and December the rains continue to fall heavily; afterwards they return only at longer intervals, and are less heavy; but at no period during the winter do they entirely cease to occur.2

The spring rains followed, as the crop was maturing, in late March and early April.3

Rain is a standard Old Testament image of God’s promised faithfulness (e.g., Jer 5:24 and Joel 2:23, as well as Deut 11:14, which would have been especially familiar as part of the regularly recited Shema). God has promised these rains; therefore the farmer can be patient in laboring.1

James using wording that implies that a farmer waits for a valuable crop by being patient “over it,” that is, over his fields. He is patient “until” it receives the autumn and spring rains. The description of the crop as valuable would help the persecuted readers to identify with the farmer as not a wealthy landlord but a small farmer who depends on a good harvest for survival.1

A central idea seems to be, that we should wait for things to develop themselves in their proper season, and should not be impatient before that season arrives. In due time we may expect the harvest to be ripened. We cannot hasten it. We cannot control the rain, the sun, the seasons; and the farmer therefore patiently waits until in the regular course of events he has a harvest. So we cannot control and hasten the events which are in God’s own keeping.2

Another point of James’ farmer story seems to be, that as Christians we are primarily sowing and cultivating, not mainly reaping rewards.3

Anointing with oil

Oil, or unguents of various kinds, were much used among the ancients, both in health and in sickness. The oil which was commonly employed was olive oil, which was believed to have medicinal or healing properties. They believed that the oil closed the pores of the skin, and thus prevented the effect of their environment’s excessive heat by which the body was much weakened.2

In reality, oil provided more refreshment and soothing comfort than it did real relief for serious ailments. Ancient peoples drank it as well as rubbed it on themselves as a medication.3

The term translated “anointing him with oil” refers to medicinal anointing, not religious ceremonial anointing. James used the Greek word aleiphein (“rub”) here rather than chriein (“anoint”).3

Note that James doesn’t seem to be advocating any secret formula for miraculous healing. He essentially recommends common medical treatment supplemented with prayer. Righteousness and faith are no guarantees for healing. Note how the Bible records numerous cases where righteous people were ill and were not healed. For example, Isaac and Jacob were blind in their later years. Elisha died of an illness. Timothy is spoken of as having “frequent illnesses” (1 Timothy 5:23). Paul said of one of his co-workers in the gospel, “I left Trophimus sick in Miletus” (2 Timothy 4:19). And the apostle Paul himself suffered an infirmity that was not healed (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).5

Elijah

James 5:17-18 recaps the story of Elijah told in 1 Kings 17-18.

The story in 1 Kings begins directly with Elijah’s declaration to King Ahab that it would not rain again except at Elijah’s word. The chapters include the miracles done by Elijah when continuous food was provided for the widow at Zarephath during the drought, and when Elijah prayed earnestly for the widow’s dead son and he was restored to life. The climax was the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, in which Elijah prayed earnestly again and God answered dramatically with fire upon the water-drenched altar and then with rain upon the drought-stricken land.1

James said Elijah “prayed earnestly” which is literally translated, “he prayed in prayer” or “he prayed with prayer.” This type of grammatical construction suggests intensity or frequency. It is sometimes translated, “he prayed and prayed.”1

However, in 1 Kings 17:1 it does not say that Elijah prayed, but that he said, “As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these three years, but according to my word.” And when Elijah was said to pray for the rain to return, 1 Kings 18:42 says, “he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees.”2

James precedes his statements about Elijah by reminding his readers that though Elijah was a great prophet, he too was simply a man. James does not want his audience to postpone praying while they try to attain some level of perfection or super spirituality.1 In spite of Elijah’s mortality, sin and imperfections, God mightily answered his prayers, and he will do the same for us.4

Observations:

  • James’ comments to rich people were most likely addressed to those outside of the church. This is drawn from the fact that 1) he refrains from addressing them as “brothers”; 2) he calls them, “you rich people”; 3) the tenor of the statements are not instructive but condemning, there is no hint that any redemption is expected; and 4) he follows the tone of many Old Testament passages condemning rich oppressors and affirming their needy, righteous victims (Ps 109:31; Ps 146; Is 5:22-24; Amos 2:6-7).1
  • The reference to moth and rust is a way of accusing the rich of having hoarded treasures. They had accumulated more than they needed for their own use; and that, instead of distributing them to do good to others, or employing them in any useful way, they kept them until they rotted or spoiled. A considerable part of the treasures which a man in the East would lay up, consisted of perishable materials, as garments, grain, oil, etc. Such articles of property were often stored up, expecting that they would furnish a supply for many years, in case of the prevalence of famine or wars.2
  • The presence of “rust” or corroded gold, in the rich man’s treasury, is a “witness” to his unfaithful stewardship of his wealth. It has not been used.3
  • Among ancient peoples, the gold and silver which any one possessed was laid up in some secret and safe place. There were no banks then in which money might be deposited; there were few ways of investing money so as to produce regular interests; there were no corporations to employ money in joint operations; and it was not very common to invest money in the purchase of real estate, or other types of investments.2
  • James seems to be encouraging his readers that judgment will come to the rich. They are not to judge their oppressors, God will.1 There is a good chance that many Christians were either thinking of, or already had been part of a physically violent revolt against the upper class.
  • The verb wail in Greek is ololyzo, which itself sounds like wailing. The term conveys the idea of “weeping accompanied by recurring shouts of pain”.1
  • Like the blood of the unjustly murdered Abel in Genesis, James says the stolen money “cries out” to God.6
  • James says the rich are fattening themselves like sheep or oxen, unconscious and ignorant of immanent “day of slaughter.” James sarcastically correlates the focus of the wealthy to the ignorance of livestock.6
  • James is worried about his audience grumbling specifically against each other. The warning, “or you will be judged” is identical to Jesus’ words in Mt 7:1 indicating that James regards this grumbling as a form of speaking against or judging one’s brother.1
  • “At the door” (literally, “before the doors”) is an image for the nearness of the Lord’s coming.1
  • James instruction for his audience that all they need “is a simple yes or no” is one of James’s clearest references to the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:33-37). In that teaching Jesus confronted the Pharisaic practice of using various formulas to create different levels of oaths, some of which were considered less binding than others. The Pharisees could thereby bind themselves to their promises in various degrees and so excuse themselves from keeping commitments they had made with lesser oaths. They could use their oaths to sound exceedingly pious and to justify themselves as deeply religious, while being in fact hypocritical.1
  • Given the poverty and injustice of James’s original readers, they likely believed that God was uncaring or unknowing or unable to help. James answer to this is for them to pray more. Conversely, when things were going well for them, their happiness may have made them think there was no need to ask God for anything. James answer to this is for them to pray more, to sing songs of praise.1
  • James reminds them that the success of the prayer depends is not the talent, learning, rank, wealth, or office of the man who prays, but the fact that he is a “righteous man,” that is, a good man; and this may be found in the ranks of the poor, as certainly as the rich; among laymen, as well as among the ministers of religion; among slaves, as well as among their masters.2
  • The fact that the ailing person was to “call for the elders” gives a clue that this person’s sickness connects with some spiritual condition. In this context, James had in view a sickness with spiritual roots. In the ancient mind sin and sickness went together, and so confession of sin was necessary if prayer for the sick was to be effective. The confession is to be not only to the elders (or other ministers) but to one another, that is, probably to those they have wronged.3
  • James himself was noted for his prayer life. Ancient historian, Josephus, says, “[James] was in the habit of entering the temple alone, and was often found upon his bended knees, and interceding for the forgiveness of the people; so that his knees became as hard as [a] camel’s, in consequence of his habitual supplication and kneeling before God.”3
  • The repentance of the sinning believer results in the forgiveness (covering) of his or her sins. This description of forgiveness harks back to Old Testament usage, where the biblical writers described sin as covered (as with a veil) when forgiven. Such usage was understandable for James, who was a Jewish believer writing to other Jews.3
  • The Greek text of James is unclear on whether or not the covering of “a multitude of sins” applies to the sins of the converted, or to the sins of the one doing the converting. The primary meaning must certainly be the former; although, of course, there is a sense in which those who win souls may Scripturally be said to “save themselves.” Paul wrote Timothy, “In doing this thou shalt save both thyself and them that hear thee” (1 Timothy 4:16).4
  • Note that there is no signature, no farewell greeting, no formal closure of any kind to James’ letter.

Discussion:

  • What wealth do you have? Money? Time? Talent? Is it rusting? Are you hoarding it versus using it to help the powerless?
  • Just as a farmer patiently awaits his crops to grow, knowing he doesn’t have control over all the circumstances that make it successful, what things in your life do you need to be patient for? What things do you hope for that you must acknowledge you do not have total control over?
  • James implies that God will correct the injustices that his audience experienced. In modern-day America, we are a country of activists and have many liberties that enable us to rally around causes and bring about social change. Do you think James’ advice would’ve been different if he had written to churches today? What are the differences, similarities and roles that people and God play in bringing about justice in the world? Should we be more patient? Should we be more active?
  • James says that the prayer of a righteous person is “powerful and effective.” What does it take to be righteous? Do you really believe there is a direct correlation between your righteousness and your effectiveness at praying? Has this prevented you from praying? Has it encouraged you to pray? Do we really think our prayers could be as powerful as Elijah’s (i.e. cause a three year drought)? Why? Why not?
  • James seems to connect at least some types of illnesses to sin, with the cure being both medicinal (oil) and spiritual (prayer and confession). What is your perception of sickness as it relates to sin? What is the role of prayer and confession in the context of modern medicine? Does prayer help healing? Does confession rid us of sickness? Is sin responsible for some of the physical ailments we experience?

References:

  1. IVP commentary
  2. Barnes’ commentary
  3. Constables’ commentary
  4. Coffman’s commentary
  5. Healing in James 5
  6. Robertson’s commentary
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James 4

Scripture: James 4:1-17

Overview:

  • James asks his audience, “You wonder why you fight with each other? I’ll tell you why. It’s because you’re envious people. You desperately want what other people have, and when you can’t get it you become cantankerous, mean, even violent. You don’t have what you want because you haven’t asked God for what you need. And you don’t get what you need because you ask God for things selfishly–so you can get them and use them for your own pleasure. Not cool.”
  • “You people are Ashley Madison registered cheatin’ scum bags when it comes to your faith,” Jim Jam says. “Your BFF is the world, which means you’re anti-God.”
  • James reminds them that the Old Testament, again and again, tells the story of how God desperately seeks out our singular affection and attention. And that he graciously takes us back after every affair we’ve had with the world.
  • “Let me throw a Proverb at you,” Jay Jay says. “‘God pounds down the proud, but gives hugs to the humble.’ So humble yourselves. Tell the devil, ‘No’ and watch him run away. Snuggle up to God and he will snuggle you back. You people who think you can have it both ways (loving God and loving the world), unite your inside beliefs and your outside actions. Wash the ugliness of double-mindedness from your life. Don’t falsely act happy, be sad. You done wrong. Weep about it. Like an unfaithful spouse begging to be taken back, wail to God, because if you drop down to your knees in front of him, God will pick you back up, and you will be his again.”
  • J-Dogg tells them, “Furthermore, don’t go around using your words to put each other down. You are not the judge. You are not the law. There is only one true judge, one guy who makes all the rules, and that’s Jesus. Respect.”
  • “Now, you people who think you’ve got it all figured out,” says Jimbo, “you people who are all, ‘I’m going to be super successful because I’ve got a three point business plan to go down to such and such city and make huge sales and tons of profitable blah blah,’ let me remind you, you don’t even know what tomorrow is like, much less next year. Want to know what your life amounts to? You know how the fog rolls in at morning time, but by 10:00 it’s gone, without a trace, like it was never there at all? Yeah, that’s you. That’s your whole existence.  Next time you make a plan, be sure to start by saying, ‘If God wills it, we’ll do it.’ Thinking you’ve got it all under control, and not acknowledging your dependence on God, is plain evil.”
  • James wraps it up by reminding them that if they know what the right thing to do is but refuse to do it, that’s what God would call missing the mark. Willful ignorance is the very definition of sin.

Historical Context:

James 4:5

The wording of James 4:5 is ambiguous and has been interpreted two different ways: It can read that “[God] jealously longs for the spirit he caused to dwell in us,” or that “the spirit [God] caused to dwell in us longs jealously.”

The first interpretation implies that God is zealous in his love for us and wants us to only love him. The second implies that our souls, by nature, are inclined towards envy, and therefore we are prone to violence. Both fit the context of James’ discussion, but the majority of scholars favor the first interpretation: that God actively seeks our undivided attention.

Proverbs 3

James quotes Proverbs 3:34 to describe God’s personal stance in regard to the choice before us. God is neither passive nor indifferent but quite active in opposing the proud and giving grace to the humble. The proverb is also reflected in Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14:11 and 18:14.This passage is also quoted in 1 Peter 5:5.

Reading through Proverbs 3 in it’s entirety shows that James uses many of it’s concepts in his letter: Resisting the devil and clinging to God (Proverbs 3:7); understanding God’s disciplinary actions (Proverbs 3:11-12); seeking God’s wisdom (Proverbs 3:11-26); and acting out one’s faith (Proverbs 3:27-31).

Hand Washing

To wash or cleanse the hands is emblematic of putting away transgression, (Matthew 27:24, Deuteronomy 21:6, Psalms 26:6). The heart is considered to be the seat of motives and intentions–that by which we devise anything; the hands, the instruments by which we execute our purposes. Jews were accustomed to wash their hands before they engaged in public worship.5

James says one must be sincere in purifying of one’s life, both morally and ceremonially. The two objects (your hands, your hearts) complement each other for external and internal cleansing. The essential connection between external washing and inward purifying is already an Old Testament theme in James’s background (Deut 10:16; Is 1:15-17). James may also be prompted by Jesus’ own teaching on washing of hands and purification within (Mk 7). James once again is connecting inward commitment and external action, a theme throughout his letter.1

Some scholars connect the Old Testament laws of impurity to the narrative in the beginning of Genesis. According to Genesis, Adam and Eve had brought death into the world by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Many think that the laws of impurity were devised to avoid contact with things that brought “death.” One who comes into contact with one of the forms of death must then immerse in water which is described in Genesis as flowing out of the Garden of Eden (the source of life) in order to cleanse oneself of this contact with death (and by extension, sin).6

Jewish Merchants

The practice of planning one’s year (James 4:13) was common among a very respectable and intelligent class of merchants during the first century. The merchants would convey the products of one place to some distant city, where they remained until they had disposed of their own goods and had purchased others suitable for another distant market; and thus the operation was repeated, until, after a number of years, the trader was enabled to return prosperously to his home. These operations were seldom very rapid, as the merchant would like to wait for opportunities to make advantageous bargains; and sometimes settle down and open a shop in the place to which he came. Many merchants at this time made long journeys to distant trading cities, such as Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, and Corinth.5

Observations:

  • “Judging” in James’s text to refer to the act of setting oneself up as a judge and lawgiver, as if one had the authority to determine what is right or wrong about another person’s life.1
  • The term for “fights” in Greek is polemos; in other contexts (as in Heb 11:34), it refers to actual armed conflict and so carries a violent image. The term for “quarrels” in Greek is mache; it is used in other literature only for battles without material weapons and so refers more to angry disputes.1
  • The Greek word for “desires” is hedone, which speaks more distinctly of pleasures. James is saying we get into fights because of pleasures we desire for ourselves.1
  • Against whom are James’ audience battling? James does not seem to imply that our good and evil desires are battling against each other. James is not sympathizing with the audiences’ internal conflicts but warning that those who literally fight are cooperating in their own self-destruction. A better translation may be, “You want and do not have: (so) you murder. And you covet and cannot obtain: (so) you quarrel and fight.” 1
  • “Spiritual adultery” is the unfaithfulness of the church, which is the bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2; Romans 7:1-6; Revelation 21:2; 22:17). The marriage metaphor was extensively used in the Old Testament, as in Isa. 54:5; and the new Israel of God, the church, naturally took it over. Jesus used it in John 3:29; and also in Matt. 12:39.4
  • James says our prayers are not answered due to the origin of the request being selfish. Elsewhere in the Bible we are told, God hears the cry of the righteous (Psalms 34:15); God hears those who call upon him in truth (Psalms 145:18); God hears the penitent (Luke 18:14); those who ask “in his name” (John 14:13); those who ask “believing” (Mark 11:24); those who ask according to God’s will (1 John 5:14).4
  • James draws the parallel that God resists the proud, so we are to resist the devil. The Greek verb for “resist,” anthistemihas, means to “set oneself against” and so emphasizes the Christian’s deliberately chosen personal stance.1
  • James gives his audience three vivid impressions of mourning: talaiporeo, a Greek word meaning “a state of being miserable or wretched”; pentheo, a Greek word meaning, “the great sadness of mourning”; and klaio, a Greek word meaning, “a vehement or bitter weeping.” James is calling for what Jesus prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:4).1
  • Moses was known as the great “lawgiver” of the Old Testament. James ascribes that title to Jesus in his letter. Christ himself made his teachings to be the “rock” upon which alone the builder could safely build (Matthew 7:24-27). His word will judge men “at the last day” (John 12:48); God has commissioned Jesus Christ to “execute judgment” (John 5:37). Christ is the one who will preside in the judgment of all nations (Matthew 25:31ff). His words, “these sayings of mine,” “whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20), are the constitution and bylaws of the kingdom of God.4
  • The sin James accuses his readers of is not that they planned for the future, but that they failed to consider God in their plans.4
  • The “mist” that James refers to is the mist that covers the countryside in the morning, and by noon has disappeared completely.2

Discussion:

  • James implies that the source of all conflicts is our jealous nature. Do you believe that mankind could ever fully eradicate war? It has been said that “to kill one man makes a murderer, to kill many makes a hero.” How do we view violent conflict on a mass scale differently than on a small scale? Does it make it any more right/wrong? Is war ever justified? If everyone was a Christian, would violent conflict cease?
  • James says the only thing we need to do to make evil flee from us is to say, “No.” Why would simply resisting the devil cause him to run away? What does this say about the illusory power of evil in our life? Why is Satan so afraid of us standing strong?
  • James advocates mourning, weeping and gloom as acts of repentance. The church generally presents itself as happy and joyful during its Sunday morning service. What would it look like if a congregation embraced mourning? What would it look like if church members pleaded, sorrowfully, for forgiveness? Should the church be more sorrowful? Should you?
  • James seems to condemn those who make long term plans without incorporating God into the equation. What plans have you made for your future? How do you incorporate God into those plans? What would your future plans look like taking into account God’s will? How do you know what God’s will is for your future?
  • What does James mean when he says that anyone who “knows the good they ought to do, but doesn’t do it, it is sin for them”? How do you define sin? Is this a fair definition? What does this definition say about God’s expectations? What does this definition say about our will and where and when we chose to apply ourselves? What actions have you not taken that this definition would label as sin?

References:

  1. IVP commentary
  2. Mackervoy’s commentary
  3. Constables’ commentary
  4. Coffman’s commentary
  5. Barnes’ commentary
  6. Ritual washing

James 3

Scripture: James 3:1-18

Overview:

  • Jim Jam tells his peeps that they might want to think twice before they go for the power position in their church–the teacher’s and preacher’s spot–because it’s a tough job, one that God has high expectations of and really cares that we do right.
  • “All us teachers mess up,” James says. “To be perfect at teaching others (like God is), you have to really watch what you say. Keep your whole self in check.”
  • Jay then delves into some analogies on the power of our speech: “The tongue, though a small part of your body, controls everything. Just like a bit in a horses’ mouth or a rudder on a ship, the small thing  can make the big thing go right or left.”
  • But the tongue is not just small and controlling, it is also small and uncontrollable, “Like a tiny spark that can turn a whole forest into a raging inferno, your tongue is a small flame, born in Hell itself, that can set your thoughts, actions and whole life, on fire–spinning them out of control.”
  • “People have tamed birds, monkeys, lions, you name it,” Jay Jay says, “but no person has ever tamed the tongue. It’s like a snake, full or poison, ready to strike.”
  • James goes on to say, “You praise your God with that mouth? You say people are lame one minute, but God is great the next? Really? Did you forget that God made people in his image? We talk out of both sides of our mouth when we use our words to praise God and knock down people. You can’t get fresh water and salt water from the same source, just like you can’t get olives from a fig tree or figs from a grapevine. Ain’t happening.”
  • “So how do you know someone is truly speaking God’s wisdom?” James asks. “You’ll know it by the life they lead. Wise people do good things, humbly. People that appear to be wise but have jealousy, bitterness, or selfish ambition in their hearts, are getting their wisdom from the world, or more accurately, from demons. Where selfishness, jealousy and ‘looking out for number one’ prevail, the result is chaos and all around bad news.”
  • Jaybone wraps it up by reminding them that wisdom from God is shown in a life lived in purity: a life lived peacefully, considerate of others, not putting oneself first, showing undeserved kindness to everyone, being blind to people’s differences and acting and speaking genuinely all the time. “Peaceful peeps acting peacefully produce a proper relationship with our praise-worthy Pop. Peace out.”

Historical Context:

“Gehenna” or Hell

Gehenna is the Greek form of a Hebrew word meaning “the valley of Hinnom.”  This valley was a place where followers of various Ba’als and other Canaanite gods, including Moloch (or Molech), sacrificed their children by fire (2 Chr. 28:3, 33:6).8  King Josiah tore down the altars making it a place of refuse and abomination ((2 Kings 23). Due to the Hebrew detestation of the place, the name came to stand for the idea of eternal punishment for the wicked (Isa. 30:27-33; 66:24; Dan. 7:10, Psa. 18:8).2

In the synoptic Gospels Jesus uses the word Gehenna 11 times to describe the opposite to life in the Kingdom of God.James is the only other New Testament author to use the word “Gehenna.”

The power of words in other Scriptures

Proverbs often mentions the power of an individual’s speech:6, 7

  • “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor, and says, ‘I was only joking!'”(Proverbs 26:18-19)
  • “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise. The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the heart of the wicked is worth little. The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of wisdom.” (Proverbs 10:19-21)
  • “There is one who speaks like the piercing of the sword but the tongue of the wise promotes health.” (Proverbs 12:18)
  • “Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad.” (Proverbs 12:25)
  • “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones.” (Proverbs 16:24)
  • “Death and life are in the power of the tongue and you can give life or you can give death.”(Proverbs 18:21)

Jesus often talks about the connection between a person’s speech and their inner character, as well as the responsibility that comes with leadership:2, 4, 7

  • “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:15-23)
  • “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:33-37)
  • “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48)

Observations:

  • James focuses on the responsibilities of teachers due to the fact that: (1) Christian meetings were open, unstructured and informal assemblies. Anyone wishing to be heard could rise and speak (see 1 Corinthians 14:26-40). (2) There was a great honor attached to the work of teaching, as indicated in 1 Cor. 12:28, where teachers were ranked second only to apostles and prophets.2
  • The problem James is addressing with teachers is not that there are spreading false doctrine (as would often be the concern in Paul’s letters). James is addressing the problem of arrogance, which can be present even when correct doctrine is being taught.4
  • James mentions “stumbling” because in Judaism walking denotes the course of a man’s conduct.2
  • James use of the word “perfect” is the same as Jesus’ usage when he says God is “perfect” (Matthew 5:48). James, and Jesus’ expectation was that “perfection,” though normally unattainable by men, could be achieved “in Christ” alone (Colossians 1:28,29).2
  • James’ first two illustrations talk about the tongues’ control over larger things, (the horse bit and the ship’s rudder), but the third illustration shows how the tongue is beyond control–it is the tiny fire that burns down a whole forest.2
  • The “whole course of a man’s life” in the original Greek is literally the “the wheel of birth.”  The Greek word, trocov, means a wheel, or anything made far revolving and running. The Greek word, genesiv, means, procreation, birth. Most translators think James is talking about the wheel which is set in motion at birth, and which runs on through life.3
  • James bluntly points out that cursing God’s creation (i.e. man) is equivalent to cursing the Creator himself.3
  • The wisdom James describes is moral rather than intellectual. Genuine wisdom, like faith, is a practical matter; it shows up in how one lives. Literally James says, “Let him show by good behavior his deeds in the humility of wisdom.” Wisdom, then, is not something possessed in one’s head; if a person is wise, it will be demonstrated in their conduct.2
  • Earthly origin implies inferiority to heavenly origin. James’ description of false wisdom is the same as that of the uncontrolled tongue (3:6)—they are both from hell. James’s intention is to point us to a wisdom from heaven in contrast to the wisdom from hell, a wisdom far superior to any wisdom we find in ourselves naturally, and certainly superior to that which comes from demons.4
  • Meekness, gentleness, or humility, is often mentioned as a characteristic trait of Jesus himself and of his followers in other New Testament books. In Matthew 5:5, Jesus pronounces the “meek” to be blessed. In Matthew 11:29, Jesus invites people to come and learn from him specifically because he is himself “gentle.” In Matthew 21:5, Jesus is pictured as the “gentle” messianic king promised in Zechariah 9:9. Paul lists humility as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23) and a trait of Christ (2 Cor 10:1) to be exhibited by all Christians toward other people (Eph 4:2; Col 3:12; Tit 3:2).4
  • The Greek word for gentleness, prauteti, occurs in non-biblical literature to describe a horse that someone had broken and had trained to submit to a bridle. It pictures strength under control. James is saying to his readers that only way to control the tongue is to place one’s mind deliberately under the authority of God and to let him control it.5  One doesn’t solve the problem of an unruly horse by keeping it in the barn, or the problem of a hard-to-steer ship by keeping it tied to the dock. James is not advocating silence. He is advocating control by God rather than man.6
  • To James, purity is not just one quality among others but the key to them all.5

Discussion:

  • Do your words unite or divide? Do they bring peace or chaos to situations? How aligned are what you say and what you do? Would an outside observer see any contrast between how you talk about God and how you talk about your worst enemy?
  • Again and again in his letter, James emphasizes that true religion, true wisdom and true faith are known only by their deeds. Believing “in your heart” or knowing “in your head” is not enough. How can we de-intellectualize our faith? How can we better externally manifest our inward convictions? What is the empirical evidence of our faith?
  • Research now indicates that upwards of 55% of all communication is non-verbal. What do you think James would say about our body language? Is it as critical to tame as the words we use? What would James say about those times when our body language and our verbal speech don’t align?
  • An increasing amount of interpersonal communication is happening through texting, social media and online — mediums that lack the majority of our typical communication indicators (i.e. body language, tone, etc.). What would James say about these ways of communicating? Do they increase or decrease our ability to detect and project sincerity? What has the anonymity of the internet done to our communication? How have you experienced it, positively and negatively?
  • It is natural to think that saying nothing is the best course of action in taming the tongue. As our mothers often told us, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.” Yet James doesn’t tell his audience to be quite, he tells them to be pure. James isn’t focused on what comes out of a person’s mouth, but rather where it comes from inside.  It’s not the tongue he’s really worried about, it’s the heart. How does this change our view on our mother’s advice? Is it still good advice? Why, why not?
  • Use this discussion guide to talk about “taming the tongue” in these other forms of communication: 1) culturally influenced vocabulary, 2) body language, 3) internal dialogue.

References:

  1. Mackervoy’s commentary
  2. Coffman’s commentary
  3. Barnes’ commnetary
  4. IVP commentary
  5. Constable’s commentary
  6. Guzik’s commentary
  7. Hawkins’ commentary
  8. Gehenna

James 2

Scripture: James 2:1-25

Overview:

  • James is all, “Brothas, sistas, people who think Jesus is the coolest ever, you shouldn’t go around thinking that some people are cooler than others.”
  • J-bomb then tells them that if some dude waltzes into church looking all swanky, and another dude shows up looking all raggedy, that they can’t say to the swanky dude, “Yo, we got box seats for you, front and center,” and to the raggedy dude say, “Uh… we have standing room only… in the back… next to the bathroom.”
  • “If you think Jesus is the coolest,” Jim reminds them, “then you shouldn’t be impressed by how cool someone else is. You aren’t allowed to differentiate between peoples. You ain’t the judge of mankind, okay?”
  • James reminds them that God started his kingdom with poor people. He sees those lacking in material goods as being rich in the right thing–belief in God.
  • “Besides,” Jimmy goes on, “aren’t the fancy folk the ones exploiting you? They’re dragging you into court, suing you and what not, and they’re dissing Jesus every time they’re mean to you, because you represent the big man, and hurt to you is hurt to him.”
  • J-dogg implores them to stick to the one true Law that Jesus exemplified – “Love yo’ neighbor as yo’ self.”
  • “If you can’t respect everyone,” James says, “then your no better than a murderer, or a cheatin’ skank bag. Break one law, you broke them all. Sin is sin.”
  • Follow Jesus’ commands, is James’ bottom line here. “God showed us mercy, so show it to everyone else in the same manner.”
  • James then says, “What good is it to disconnect your beliefs and your actions? Can you really even say you believe something if you don’t act on it? Pshaw!”
  • “Let’s say you run across a poor dude,” Jimbo rants, “and he’s all, ‘got any change? I’m hungry,’ and you’re like, ‘God bless you man,’ and move on–what good did you just do? This ain’t just about being nice, it’s about doing nice.”
  • But James knows someone might be all, “I’m better at just intellectually understanding and thinking about faith, so I’ll do that part, and you can do the part that helps people.”
  • “Oh no you didn’t” James would reply. “I’ll tell you what, you go ahead and display your dedication to God with just your thoughts. Go on now. Show me how much you believe. Oh, wait you can’t. But look, I can show you that I truly follow Jesus at any time. Just watch how I act day to day.”
  • “You want to just believe?” James says. “Demons can do that. They believe the same thing you and I do. Yay for them. But you know what? They’re still demons because of how they act.”
  • James then reminds his readers of Abraham’s story and that God said they were in a right relationship because when he asked Isaac to be sacrificed, Abe was willing to do it.
  • James also reminds them of Rahab’s story and how a lowly, non-Jewish, hooker helped out God’s people in their time of need, and God thought that was awesome.
  • Jay Jay closes out by saying, “You can’t tell me your faith is alive if you separate your actions and your thoughts any more than you can separate your soul and your body and still say it’s alive. They need to act as one, or they’re dead.”

Historical Context:

Synagogue

This is the only place in the New Testament where the word synagogue is applied to the Christian church. James most likely used this term because he was writing to Christians who had been Jews, and synagogue would be the natural term they would’ve used to designate their congregation.2

However, the original, literal meaning of the word synagogue is “assembly” and had no religious overtones. For example, in Genesis 1:9, the term is used for the gatherings of water.6

Synagogues began during the Babylonian captivity (586–537 BC), when the Jews, devoid of the structure of the Temple, started to standardized their prayers and create individual houses of worship in whatever locale they found themselves. These “assemblies” allowed the Jewish people to maintain a unique identity and a portable way of worship wherever they lived, and continued to exist even after their return to Israel and reconstruction of the Temple.9

Early believers used the word synagogue for their assemblies, but as they grew apart from the beliefs of Judaism they started using the term “church” (Greek: ekklesia), which means “called out,” referring to the fact that they were called out from the world, distinct from other peoples. It is probable that early Christian meetings were modeled after the Jewish synagogue; but there were disadvantages in retaining the name due to the strong Jewish cultural associations it conveyed. Thus,they created a new name, a new identity, for their gatherings that better represented the ideas and practices of Christianity.2

Demons

According to the New Testament, demons wander desolate places, (Matthew 12:43,) dwell in the atmosphere, (Ephesians 2:2), have the power to work miracles, but not for good, (Revelation 16:14; John 10:21), are hostile to mankind (John 8:44), can prophecy (Acts 16:17), live in the idols of the pagans (1 Corinthians 10:20), and possess people’s bodies, afflicting them with various kinds of diseases (Matthew 7:22;;9:34; Matthew 10:8;; 17:18;; Mark 7:29-30;; Luke 4:33; 8:27,30).2

In describing the demons’ belief, James uses the phrase  “you believe there is one God” to invoke the concept of the “Shema” to his audience. The Shema is, literally, the first two words of Deuteronomy 6:4, which encapsulates the monotheistic essence of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” Observant Jews consider the Shema to be the most important part of the prayer service in Judaism, and it is to be recited twice-daily.10 James says to his readers that the demons believe “rightly” as they, observant Jews, do. Demons are not atheists, agnostics or skeptics.2 They believe in the same God as Christians, and they believe the same things about God. Demons’ actions (or in-actions) as a result of their belief are what separate them from the saints, not their faith. James’ comparison here infers that a man’s isolated, intellectual assent to the truth is downright demonic.2

James also says the demons “shudder” as a result of their belief. The Greek word, “frissw,” occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It means, “to be rough, uneven; to bristle, to stand on end, as the hair does in a fright; to shudder or quake with fear.”2 Their shuddering is likely the result of knowing their fate for disobedience to God, a reaction that James implies his readers should have if they believe as the demons do.

James vs. Paul

Many have observed that Paul and James appear to be at odds in their statements about faith and salvation.

James says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” (Js 2:14); and, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone,” (Js 2:24); and, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead,” (Js 2:26).

On the other hand, Paul says, “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight,” (Romans 3:20); “We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law,” (Romans 3:28); “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ,” (Galatians 2:16).2

In addition, both Paul and James refer to the same Old Testament scripture to illustrate their views–the justification of Abraham (Gen. 15:6). Paul refers to it to prove that justification is wholly by faith. “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness,”(Romans 4:1-3).  And James refers to it to prove that justification is by works: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?”(James 2:21-22).2 Though it is interesting to note that though the scripture referenced is the same, the events in Abraham’s life that they use to prove their case are about twenty years apart–Paul mentioning Abraham’s covenant with God and James talking about Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac.

Scholars have reconciled these statements a few ways:

  1. Paul is likely discussing what happens before an individual is converted, James afterwards.Paul says that a man cannot be saved by his actions. James is saying that a saved man is known by his actions. Paul is saying faith in Jesus is the only thing that makes you right with God. James is saying, how can a man be right with God unless his life displays God-like qualities?
  2. Paul is referring to works of the Mosaic Law (not only rituals but any act of obedience to God’s commands to Moses), whereas James is referring to moral actions flowing naturally from genuine faith.5 Paul is particularly focused on arguing that circumcision is not a condition that has to be met prior to a person being saved, while James is concerned with the expressing that inward faith and its outward expression must be unified not fragmented.
  3. Paul and James more often say the same thing about how believers need to live out their faith in ways that align with their beliefs. For example, Paul says, “[We were] created in Christ Jesus to do good works,” (Ephesians 2:10); “Charge them that are rich that they be rich in good works,” (1 Timothy 6:17-18); “In everything set them an example by doing what is good.,” (Titus 2:7); “[Jesus Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good,” ( Titus 2:14); “those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good,” (Titus 3:8).2
  4. Paul is talking about salvation, but James is talking about spiritual maturity. James implies that Abraham’s faith was made complete (perfected) by what he did. This is one of James’ themes up to this point (Js. 1:14). As Paul says, Abraham was credited with righteousness prior to his circumcision (Gen. 15), but as James says, God’s declaration that Abraham was righteous was proved real when Abraham acted on his faith and offered Isaac to God (Gen. 22).2

Observations:

  • James calls them “brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” to remind them that faith in Christ is what brings us all, whatever our backgrounds, into God’s family at the same level.3
  • James talks about our belief in the “glorious Jesus” to contrast his next statements about the “glories” of the rich (gold rings and fine clothes). James is saying that instead of exalting the rich, we should exalt Christ alone. Focusing on the glory of Christ puts us all in our proper place.3
  • James continues his discussion on a believers’ divided loyalties in chapter 1 by bringing up the concept of judgment in chapter 2.  In chapter 1 James says doubters asking for wisdom are divided internally, and in chapter 2 that Christians who practice favoritism are divided relationally. Doubters are making a judgment whether God will or will not give what is needed; Christians who practice favoritism are making a judgment between the value of the rich person and the value of the poor person. The corrective for both is to be single-minded.5
  • The implication in James 1:10-11 is that wealth leads one to become poor in faith because it gives one a false sense of security. In James 2:5 the author is observing that God generally starts with the poor, that there is a longstanding Old Testament tradition of God’s care for the poor (ex. Deut 10:18), and that it is the prevalent economic situation of his readers.5
  • In 2:7, James says the rich people are blaspheming the name that, literally translated, “has been called upon you.” Bearing a name implied a relationship with the person whose name you bore, therefore abuse of Christians equates to abuse of Jesus. James concludes that when Christians practice favoritism, they are essentially helping others heap abuse on Jesus.5
  • The “law of liberty” is a reference to the teaching of Jesus, not the Old Testament Law. It is likely called the “law of liberty” because of its stark contrast with the Law of Moses, which the apostles called, “a yoke of bondage.” With Jesus there are only two ceremonies initiated, baptism and the Lord’s supper; and one of those (baptism) needs to be observed only once in a lifetime, and the other may be observed anywhere on earth. In Jesus, there is only one sacrifice to be made for sins–himself, on the cross. And with Jesus, entry to the kingdom is free to all, at their own will. By contrast, the Law of Moses required all worshipers to go up to Jerusalem to worship, offer countless animal sacrifices of Moses’ law and was restricted to those of Jewish heritage or conversion to their nationality.6
  • James says, “show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works,” to demonstrate that we can’t “see” someone’s faith, but we can see their works. You can’t see faith without works, but you can demonstrate the reality of faith by your actions.5
  • James is saying that without good works a person’s faith in God is useless, not nonexistent. Useless(Greek: argos), here means, “ineffectual, idle, unemployed.”8
  • James says that Abraham’s faith and actions “worked together,” literally “cooperated,” to make God’s declaration of Abraham’s right standing with him complete.
  • James may have used Abraham (the father of the Jews) and Rahab (a sinful Gentile) to subtly reinforce his rebuke of the partiality that developed between Jewish Christians and Gentile believers.7
  • James uses the lesson of Abraham to reinforce that if we believe in God, we will do what he tells us to do; and  Rahab to remind us that if we believe in God, we will help his people, even at our own expense.7
  • James uses Abraham and Rahab to argue that “true religion” is not designed to be a cold abstraction; it is to be a living and vivifying principle.2
  • James reminds us that good works are normal for a Christian, but they are not automatic or inevitable.8

Discussion:

  • Impartiality is highly valued by God. How impartial are we? Who do we hold in high regard in the church? Who is neglected? Do we treat the rich and powerful different than the poor? Does our church system naturally favor the wealthy and exclude the poor? How has our culture influenced our understanding of who does/doesn’t have value?
  • Paul and James seem to say different things about faith and works (see discussion above). What are the similarities/differences in their statements? What is the difference between being saved and acting saved? Why does James connect faith and actions as being a sign of true maturity? How mature are we by this standard? What more do we need to “do” to properly show what we “believe”?
  • James says faith separated from one’s actions is like the spirit separated from the body–dead. Is your faith alive or dead? What about our church? On James’ scale of belief from demons to Abraham, where are we?

References:

  1. Mackervoy’s commentary
  2. Barnes’ commentary
  3. Cole’s commentary
  4. Hawkins’ commentary
  5. IVP commentary
  6. Coffman’s commentary
  7. Guzik’s commentary
  8. Constable’s commentary
  9. History of the Synagogue 

 

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

James Overview

Author and Date

Tradition generally holds that this letter was written by James, the brother of Jesus, who is also called James the Just, and sometimes identified as James, son of Alphaeus, and James the Less.1

Hegesippus, a second century church father, says, “After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem.” And that, “[James] drank no wine or other intoxicating liquor, nor did he eat flesh; no razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, nor make use of the bath. He alone was permitted to enter the holy place: for he did not wear any woolen garment, but fine linen only. He alone, was wont to go into the temple: and he used to be found kneeling on his knees, begging forgiveness for the people–so that the skin of his knees became horny like that of a camel’s, by reason of his constantly bending the knee in adoration to God, and begging forgiveness for the people.”1

Jesus’ brothers – James as well as Jude, Simon and Joses – are named in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3. James’ name always appears first in lists, which suggests he was the eldest among them. The Gospel of John never mentions anyone called James, but mentions Jesus’ unnamed “brothers” as being present with Mary when Jesus attended the wedding at Cana (John 2:12), and later that his brothers did not believe in him (John 7:5). In a passage in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, the first century Jewish historian describes James as “the brother of Jesus who is called Christ.”1

Paul describes James as being one of the persons to whom the risen Christ showed himself (1 Corinthians 15:3–8); later in 1 Corinthians, Paul suggests “the brothers of the Lord” could have been married (9:5); and in Galatians, Paul lists James with Cephas (better known as Peter) and John the Apostle as the three “pillars” of the Church (2:9)1

James died around 62 AD. The High Priest Hanan ben Hanan took advantage of this lack of Rome’s imperial oversight to assemble a Sanhedrin who condemned James “on the charge of breaking the law”, then had him executed by throwing him off the temple, then by stoning.1

If written by James, the time of the writing of his letter would be sometime before 62 AD. Jerusalem would be the place of origin. This would make this book on of the earliest written in the New Testament.2

There is some internal evidence to suggest such an early date:2

  • The letter does not mention Christians who are not Jewish. The first Christians were almost all Jews.
  • When Gentiles became Christians, there were problems about the rules that they were to obey (Acts 15). There is no mention of this in the letter.
  • The use of the word ‘*synagogue’ (in 2:2 translated as ‘meeting place’) shows that the Christians were still meeting with the Jews.
  • After the death of Stephen (Acts 7) Jews tried to kill the Christians. As a result, many of them left Jerusalem and went to live in other countries (Acts 8). Many think this is the “twelve tribes dispersed abroad,” that James is writing too.

Many scholars also think James’ speech in Acts 15 contains some parallels in language with the epistle of James.15

Historical Context

Wisdom Literature

Though James is written as a letter, many scholars think there are parallels to the Wisdom genre because, like Proverbs and Sirach, it consists largely of moral exhortations and precepts of a traditional and eclectic nature. 2

Wisdom literature is characterized by sayings of wisdom intended to teach about divinity and virtue.

The Wisdom books in the Bible are Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes.The Hebrew word for “wisdom” is mentioned 222 times in the Old Testament. It was regarded as one of the highest virtues among the Israelites along with kindness and justice.14

Wisdom literature was written by individuals who considered themselves sages. Sages had two sources of information about life: the natural world and their Wisdom tradition. Unlike prophets and priests, the sages believed that God wove important principles into the fabric of the universe, which careful observation could discern. For example, many sages believed in a balanced universe in which the good are rewarded for their goodness and the evil are punished. These two sources were in tension at times; human experience showed that sometimes good people suffer and evil people sleep peacefully. The sages agonized over the contradictions in their system and took different sides in their debates.In general, priests and prophets dealt with religious and moral concerns (proclaiming, teaching, interpreting and applying God’s word to his people), whereas the sages generally focused more on the practical aspects of how life should be guided in the created order of things (Proverbs) and on the intellectual challenges that arise from the ambiguities of human experience (Job, Ecclesiastes).7

For these sages, Wisdom was fruit of the unending quest for the meaning of man’s experience of life and religion. “Where shall wisdom be found?” asks the Book of Job. “Man does not know the way to it. It is hidden from the eyes of all living things, God understands the way to it” (Job 28:12, 21, 23). The search for the higher wisdom led to the twin convictions that, in the last analysis, wisdom comes to man only as a divine gift, and that it belongs to the very nature of God himself.8

Creation plays a prominent role in the speculative/philosophical reflections on wisdom. Wisdom is the principle by which God structured and created the earth and the heavens (Prov 3.19–20); wisdom appears to God at the moment of creation in Job 28.23–27; personified wisdom is present alongside God when God creates the world in Prov 8.22–31; wisdom “covers the earth like a mist” inSir 24.3; and wisdom is “poured out upon all [God’s] works, upon all the living” in Sir 1.9–10. Within creation lies a principle of order that is expressed in the harmonious society as well as the proper functioning of the natural world. The relationship between creation and wisdom developed in later Jewish and Christian literature (cf. Col 1.15–16).9

Wisdom came to signify the unifying principle of order that undergirds the universe, and the sages believed that reflection upon the world could lead one to glimpse aspects of this principle.9

Philo, a Hellenised Jew writing in Alexandria in the first century, attempted to harmonize Platonic philosophy and Jewish scripture. He used the Greek term logos, “word,” for the role and function of Wisdom, a concept later adapted by the author of the Gospel of John in the opening verses and applied to Jesus Christ as the eternal Word (Logos – Wisdom – Unifying Principle) of God the Father.14

There are several other New Testament passages that link Jesus to Wisdom as portrayed in the Old Testament:14

  • Like Wisdom, Christ pre-existed all things and dwelt with God (John 1:1-2)
  • The lyric language about Wisdom being the breath of the divine power, reflecting divine glory, mirroring light, and being an image of God, appears to be echoed by 1 Corinthians 1:17-18, 24-5 (verses which associate divine wisdom with power), by Hebrews 1:3 (“he is the radiance of God’s glory”), John 1:9 (“the true light that gives light to everyone”), and Colossians 1:15 (“the image of the invisible God”).
  • The New Testament applies to Christ the language about Wisdom’s cosmic significance as God’s agent in the creation of the world: “all things were made through him, and without him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:3; see Col 1:16 Heb 1:2).
  • The Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:21) is not only “secret and hidden” (1 Cor. 2:7) but also, defined by the cross and its proclamation, downright folly to the wise of this world (1 Cor. 1:18-25).
  • Christ says he is ‘greater’ than Solomon, the Old Testament wise person and teacher par excellence (Matt 12:42).
  • Paul names Christ as “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24) whom God “made our wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:30; cf. 1:21).

Audience

The recipients of this letter were the Jewish Christians of the Diaspora, Jews who had scattered from Palestine and had come to faith in Christ.10  References to them meeting in a synagogue (2:2), monotheism (2:19), and the lack of circumcision controversy so prominent in Paul’s letters to largely Gentile audiences, indicates that this was entirely a Jewish audience. Further, the Palestinian background of either the author or the readers is seen in the references to the autumn and spring rains in Jas. 5:7, a weather phenomenon limited to the eastern Mediterranean coastal plain and lowlands.15

James’ audience is made up largely of poor folks who are oppressed. It likely because of their poverty (possibly brought on by the famine mentioned in Acts 11), combined with their Christian conviction, that they were oppressed.15

Major Themes

Framed within an overall theme of patient perseverance during trials and temptations, James writes to encourage believers to live consistently with what they have learned in Christ. He desires for his readers to mature in their faith in Christ by living what they say they believe. James condemns various sins including pride, hypocrisy, favoritism, and slander. James encourages believers to humbly live heavenly wisdom rather than worldly wisdom, and to pray in all situations.2

The Book of James teaches us that faith in God should result in behavior that is in harmony with God’s will.10

Some behaviors James is most concerned with:10

  • Attitude towards trials. God’s goal for believers is personal maturity.
  • Prejudice. God’s goal for believers is love for all people.
  • Speech. God’s goal is that believers bless others with speech.
  • Interpersonal relationships. God’s goal is that believers maintain peace with others.
  • Use of money. God’s goal is that believers use their money to serve others, rather than hoarding it for themselves.
  • In general James says we must challenge the philosophy of the world. The world system says: Avoid trials; Give preference to those who can help you; Promote yourself by what you say; Demand your rights; Grab all the money you can.

James also makes many references to themes found in the Sermon on the Mount:10 & 11

  1. Righteousness, or “right conduct.”
  2. Maturity, or being “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
  3. Seeking God’s approval above man’s approval.
  4. Commending those who are “spiritually poor,” meek, merciful, and peacemakers.
  5. Warning about the deception of riches.

Discussion

  • What is today’s wisdom literature look like? Who are the sages? What do they say about how we should behave?
  • If Jesus is the “pattern of the world”, the “rationale of creation”, or the “single unifying principle of creation” as indicated by the title “Logos” (Word of God), then what should the world be like? How are we to help shape it back to it’s intended form?
  • James wrote to a Christian Jewish audience who still attended synagogs, followed the Mosaic Law and sacrificed animals. What would you think if you met someone like this today? What would you tell them about what you believe? What do you think you could learn from them? How has Christianity changed? Why?

References

  1. James the Just
  2. Epistle of James
  3. Darby’s commentary
  4. Jewish Christians
  5. Wisdom Literature
  6. Penchansky on Wisdom Literature
  7. Biblical Wisdom Literature
  8. Scott on Wisdom Literature
  9. Breed on Wisdom Literature
  10. Constable’s commentary
  11. James’ commentary
  12. Mackervoy’s commentary
  13. Coffman’s commentary
  14. Wisdom
  15. Wallace’s commentary