Practical Christian Wisdom from the New Testament Book of James
A Letter of Practical Christian Wisdom
Verse 1: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings” (James 1:1 NIV).
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1 NIV) tells us that the writer of this letter was James, a younger half-brother of Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 13:55). Once a bonafide skeptic (Mark 3:21) of the virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14) of his Older Brother, James had now been transformed to become His ardent supporter, humbling himself not only as a “servant [Greek, doulos, slave] of God” (1:1 NIV), but equally, a bond servant by choice of Jesus, who he now admits to be the Jewish Messiah and his master. James’ choice of calling himself a “servant of God” (1:1 NIV) is consistent with the teachings of Christ. “Whoever serves Me must follow Me; and where I am, My servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves Me” (John 12:26 NIV). We are servants of the Lord with the benefit of God directing our choices in life. Remember, we are not here to figure out how to use God, but how He can use us. This epistle or letter was addressed to the “twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (1:1 NIV), since the Early Church was originally Jewish converts returning to their homes from the Acts 2 Pentecost, as well as, to the converted Jewish brothers and sisters “scattered among the nations” (1:1 NIV) by the persecutions of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 8:1). NT scholars date this epistle as sometime before 62 AD, when James was martyred by King Herod (Acts 12:2). The Romans did not destroy Jerusalem and the Temple until 70 AD. “Greetings” (1:1 NIV) is the expected salutation, since this is a letter.
Testing of Your Faith (1:2-18)
Verse 2: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2 NIV).
It is not common advice for a religion or philosophy of the world to “consider it pure joy… whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2 NIV). For example, Buddhism does not see suffering as a way to connect to God, rather suffering for them is merely an opportunity to discover an enlightened way to escape the process of ongoing pain. By contrast, Christians are to rejoice or “consider it pure joy” (1:2 NIV) because trials are God’s way of producing in us “perseverance” (1:3 NIV), “patience” (1:3 KJV), “steadfastness” (1:3 ESV), and “endurance” (1:3 NASB). At first glance, it seems odd that our new found world in Christ should be attended by so much trouble, but we are being brought to a greater reality that the way to Heaven is not supposed to be trouble free. John Bunyan’s classic allegory, “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (1678) — significant as the first and most influential novel in the English language — was narrated as a dream sequence, in which Christian faced repeated challenges as he journeyed from the City of Destruction in his pilgrimage to the Celestial City — which may confuse many contemporary readers, especially those unaccustomed to persecution, and who are more familiar with the conveniences of Christian modernity. “I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NIV). Compare our Lord’s promise of trouble to the fewness of our company, while on our way. “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14 NIV). According to our Lord, few of this world find Jesus as the Way, Truth, and Life to come to God (John 14:6). And, by extension and Paul’s observation, there are “not many” wise, influential, or of noble birth (1Corinthians 1:26 NIV) on this narrow way. Likewise, the rich and powerful may find their way to Christ with difficulty because they have fewer incentives, since their material needs are already being met.
When are riches an obstacle to getting to Heaven? Riches are a problem, when they are more important than God. Here is how Jesus diagnosed this condition in a rich young man. “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me” (Matthew 19:21 NIV). Back to our comments on James 1:2, when then should we rightly “consider it pure joy” (James 1:2 NIV)? At whatever time and at anytime when or “whenever you face trials of many kinds” (1:2 NIV), you are to rejoice. Trials, tribulations, and testings are all the difficulties faced by a follower of Jesus Christ to motivate us to further discover God. All of those things only make us stronger. “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28 KJV). God is all wise to know how to design life to benefit His people and move them toward Himself.
Verse 3: “Because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:3 NIV).
“The testing of your faith produces perseverance [Greek, hupomonē, steadfastness, constancy, endurance]” (1:3 NIV) is also translated “the trying of your faith worketh patience” (James 1:3 KJV). Faith tested is the only way to get patience. Long has Christendom responded to the query, “How do I get patience?” with “Patience comes from the trying of your faith.” But, it has always meant enduring a difficult circumstance with the confidence God is working in us. “And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Romans 5:3-5 KJV). The “testing of your faith” (James 1:3 NIV) can be twofold: (1) God testing us, for us to see, if we have learned, what He has been teaching us about Himself, e.g., Abraham willing to sacrifice his son to see if he really believed God’s promise to give him a continuing inheritance through Isaac (Hebrews 11:17-19). (2) Though God never tempts anyone to sin (James 1:13), He does allow Satan to tempt us, with the understanding God is not the author of our sinning, should we fail the test (Job 1:9-12). God would never allow “you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1Corinthians 10:13 NIV).
Verse 4: “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4 NIV).
What is the purpose of patience or perseverance? “Let patience have her perfect [Greek, téleios, finished, complete, perfect, mature] work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing” (James 1:4 KJV). The purpose of perseverance or patience is to make us mature, complete, or perfect in Christ. Isn’t perfect a description of Christ? Aren’t we supposed to be a finite [limited] version or likeness of Christ? So, patience conforms us into the image of Christ or Christlikeness. What is Christlikeness? The following are representative, but not exhaustive: (1) Having the same attitude as Christ, i.e., “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus… He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant… He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death” (Philippians 2:5, 7-8 NIV). (2) Being imitators of Christlike disciples, i.e., “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1Corinthians 11:1 NIV). (3) Following Christ’s example. “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15 NIV). (4) Acting like Christ, our Teacher, i.e., “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher” (Luke 6:40 NIV).
Verse 5: “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” (James 1:5 NIV).
What is wisdom? Wisdom is seeing things from God’s point of view. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God” (James 1:5 NIV). God gladly wants us to see things His way, so He “gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (1:5 NIV). Wisdom is most identified with the practical, pithy sayings of the OT Book of Proverbs. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7 NIV). The Book of James is filled with practical NT observations and wisdom that addressed the OT sensibilities of his immediate recipients about “deeds” or “works” compared to the NT appreciation of “faith.” “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26 NIV). James 2:5 is very pronounced about how to get wisdom. “You should ask God” (1:6 NIV). Though a particular need may occasion us to pray, our main concern in prayer is what is the will of God? Find out what God wants to do, then ask Him to do it. “For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:8 NIV). The question in the mind of the seeker is, Can this really be the will of God, if there seems to be so many seemingly correct responses to my question? Since you have limited time to make your choice, make the best decision you can rationally-but-prayerfully make, then trust the promise of James 1:5 that God has led you. “And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of my master Abraham, who hath not left destitute my master of His mercy and His truth: I being in the way, the LORD led me to the house of my master’s brethren” (Genesis 24:27 KJV).
Verse 6: “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6 NIV).
A literalist is one who takes God at His Word. “I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me” (Acts 27:25 KJV). Never become so hardened that you can’t believe that God always means what He says. “When you ask, you must believe and not doubt” (James 1:6 NIV) is the fundamental rule of prayer. If you ask, according to the will of God, then “you must believe and not doubt” God will answer accordingly. Is that a hard request for God to make of us? It is a difficult rule, for anyone uncertain of the will of God, such as expressed in James 1:6.
Let’s take for an example of believing and not doubting, when we ask, what about praying for the salvation of all mankind? Must we believe all will universally be saved? Is that what Scripture really teaches? “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing [Greek, boulomai, wanting, desiring, wishing] that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2Peter 3:9 KJV). If universal salvation is true, then, why did the rich man end up in the torment of Hades — “in hell [Greek, basanos, Hades, torment], he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom” (Luke 16:23 KJV)? If punishment is a fiction (as demanded by universalism), then Christ’s atonement would be unnecessary, and salvation would not apply only to those, who believe, repent, and obey the Gospel to be baptized (Acts 2:38). So, in our example of believing and not doubting, when we ask, no, we are not required to believe or pray that all will be universally saved.
The evidence is, God’s will can be resisted. We do have a free will. Lucifer really did sin in the heavenlies (Isaiah 14:13-14). God’s will stated in the Scriptures must be balanced with a Spirit led application to our circumstances. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27 NIV). “The one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6 NIV) and is negatively, endlessly changeable. The Spirit of God is like the wind, but not arbitrary. “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are Yes in Christ. And so through Him the Amen is spoken by us to the glory of God” (2Corinthians 1:20 NIV).
Verse 7 : “That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:7 NIV).
“That person” (James 1:7 NIV) is the one who doubts, and they “should not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (1:7 NIV). Not anything — nothing. Doubt, in the name of “I don’t want you to get disappointed by expecting too much from God, like I did,” wrongly prevents people from trusting God’s promises, while faith correctly promotes people understanding those promises, so God can be trusted. “Let God be true, and every human being a liar. As it is written: So that You may be proved right when You speak and prevail when You judge” (Romans 3:4 NIV). Father, help me to always trust You, and never doubt You.
Verse 8 : “Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:8 NIV).
“Double-minded” means wavering between choosing God or choosing yourself and the world. A “double-minded” hypocrite is much like a ‘two-faced’ liar, which is like ‘speaking out of both sides of your mouth.’ All are familiar ways of describing hypocrites, liars, and cheats. “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks” (Ephesians 5:3-4 KJV). Jesus taught a Unity of Moral Action, that is, we cannot choose right and wrong at the same time. He said, “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24 NIV) at the same moment. To be “double-minded” (James 1:8 NIV) is to waver between hot and cold, which makes us “lukewarm” (Revelation 3:16), and nauseates God. “Unstable in all they do” (James 1:8 NIV) is the opposite of firm, stedfast, stable, faithful, and dependable. “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1Corinthians 15:58 NIV).
Verse 9: “Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position” (James 1:9 NIV).
The world’s reaction to humble or poor circumstances is to change those circumstances to something richer and better. Is this wrong? No. But, for “believers in humble circumstances” (James 1:9 NIV), their main concern ought to be “to take pride in their high position” (1:9 NIV). Is it wrong for disciples to pray for improvement of those circumstances? No. But, recognize that “you will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have Me [Christ]” (John 12:8 NIV). That’s another way of impressing us with the greater importance of Christ’s presence and our need for likeness to Him. Is our evidently “high position” (James 1:9 NIV), though it be poor and humble, something to be proud of? Yes, because it is not lifting ourself up in our own mind, but realizing our humble circumstances are God’s opportunity to magnify Himself by carrying us to Him and through those circumstances.
The mainspring dominance of the Protestant Work Ethic in Western Civilization, as characterized in political economist and founding sociologist Max Weber’s classic book, “The Capitalist Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism” (1904), which emphasized hard work, the accumulation of capital wealth, and the reinvestment of profits, has been a driving force, even into the 21st Century. Scripture supports that position — but, goes far beyond it. Support for: (1) Hard work. “10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat. 12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat” (2Thessalonians 3:10, 12 NIV). (2) Accumulation of capital wealth. “She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard” (Proverbs 31:16 NIV). (3) Reinvestment of profits. “16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest” (Matthew 25:16-17, 27).
How is Christianity much more than mere capitalism? Not to belittle the plight of humanity in poverty, disease, and ignorance — but a dialectic materialism concern simply over unfairness of employers payment and treatment of workers, the difficulty and appropriateness of accumulating capital, and the improper behavior of the banking system in contracting and expanding the money supply and monetizing debt — all of this is answered by Christ’s focus upon delivering rest to the masses through union with Himself. “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 NIV).
Verse 10: “But the rich should take pride in their humiliation — since they will pass away like a wild flower” (James 1:10 NIV).
Just the opposite of our former conduct in the world, because it is now with the realization that God is getting the benefit of our humiliation. Why? Because God is exalted, when we accept it humbly as a disciple and Christian. The rich “will pass away like a wild flower” (James 1:10 NIV), paints a picture of a dried flower pressed into the pages of an old book, then removed, and crumbled through handling. Anyone, who has experienced the passage of time, can reflect on the change in technologies, as well as, the fashion of the times. The “rich” (1:10 NIV) is a relative term. Rich in comparison to whom, where, and when? It conjures up a different reaction in different people and cultures throughout history. A “poor” person now could be considered a “rich” person at another time in history. Mark Twain’s satire and science fiction, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1889), portrayed an unexplained displacement in time and place of an American laborer, engineer, Hank Morgan, into the court of King Arthur. With the advanced technology of the 19th century, Hank becomes the smartest person in the country, outwits the failed sorcery of Merlin, outmaneuvers elements of a manipulative Church, and defeats some scheming nobility, but still, he ends tragically back in his own time. It could be considered simply the ploy of a manipulative society, preaching contentment to the masses, while withholding riches for only the elite. But, the real question is, “In the eternal scheme of things, who is really rich?” True riches are only in Christ. “In order that in the coming ages He might show the incomparable riches of His grace, expressed in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7 NIV). And, those riches touch all of our needs. “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of His glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19 NIV). But, most importantly, the quest for riches should draw us to God, not to prosper ourselves at His expense, but to find true contentment only in Him. “My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ,” (Colossians 2:2 NIV).
Verse 11: “For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business” (James 1:11 NIV).
As much as OT Israel was a Promised Land of spiritual blessing, Israel was a land of physical riches, for example: (1) Israel was a land of rich natural resources and agricultural plenty, i.e., “a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8 NIV). (2) God provided so no one needed to be poor in Israel. “However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, He will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today” (Deuteronomy 15:4-5 NIV). (3) Inherited tribal land was required to be returned to its original owner in the Year of Jubilee. “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan” (Leviticus 25:10 NIV). (4) No interest was to be charged on loans to fellow Israelites. “If you lend money to one of My people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest” (Exodus 22:25 NIV). If God gives riches, use it for God, but do not make becoming rich your goal. “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; do not trust your own cleverness” (Proverbs 23:4 NIV). As much as the OT makes a good case for the prosperity of Israel in this world, as the way Jehovah planned, the “rich will fade away even while they go about their business” (James 1:11 NIV). No one should be surprised that death strips away all riches from the wealthy. “Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands” (Ecclesiastes 5:15 NIV).
Verse 12: “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” (James 1:12 NIV).
“Blessed” (James 1:12 NIV), in the Greek, is makarios, which means happy. Happiness comes from persevering when tried. To be sure, unhappiness comes to those who do not persevere. “For if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either” (Romans 11:21 NIV). Make no mistake, God does not mention perdition idly. “1 Therefore, since the promise of entering His rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:1, 11 NIV). “Having stood the test” (James 1:12 NIV) depicts the Perseverance of the Saints. Instead of just the happiness of knowing we have a Heavenly Destination, this is the comfort of knowing the Blessedness of Persevering “Under Trial” (1:12 NIV). The prize for perseverance is the “crown of life” (1:12 NIV). Here, “crown” in the Greek, is stephanos, which is the prize to victors in public games. If our perseverance is simply a credit to ourselves, then we have good cause to place our trophy on the mantle as an acknowledgment of a job well done. But, our perseverance is a tribute to “God [who] is faithful” (1Corinthians 10:13), and the credit truly belongs to Him. What should we do? Place our victor’s crown at the feet of the Lord, to whom belongs the real recognition for our perseverance. And, that we will do, by His grace! “10 The four and twenty elders fall down before Him that sat on the throne, and worship Him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns [Greek, stephanos, victor’s crown] before the throne, saying, 11 Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for Thou hast created all things, and for Thy pleasure [Greek, thelēma, will, desire] they are and were created” (Revelation 4:10-11 KJV). Lord, we love You, for You first loved us. “Jesus knew that the hour had come for Him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1 NIV).
Verse 13: “When tempted, no one should say, God is tempting me. For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone” (James 1:13 NIV).
The wrong way to look at temptation is to say, “God is tempting me” (James 1:13 NIV). God’s very purpose in creating us “in His own image” (Genesis 1:27 NIV) was for us to be a reflection or representation of Himself by our very existence. How could He have the slightest reason to ”be tempted by evil” (James 1:13 NIV) to move or encourage us to sin against Himself? The answer is He “cannot be tempted by evil” (1:13 NIV) to do so. Even “if we believe not, yet He abideth faithful: He cannot deny [Greek, arneomai, disown] Himself” (2Timothy 2:13 KJV). God would never tempt us to sin, for He cannot disown Himself. It is God’s identity of who He is not to deny Himself by encouraging or tempting us to sin. God tests us to grow us, but He never seeks to make us sin.
Verse 14: “But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (James 1:14 NIV).
What is the proper way to look at temptation? Temptation comes from within. Blaming God is inaccurate. Even blaming the devil is inappropriate. “Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire [Greek, epithumia, lust, strong desire, but not necessarily a sinful desire] and enticed” (James 1:14 NIV). Epithumia is translated “evil desire” (NIV), “lust” (KJV), and “desire” (ESV). Since epithumia is any strong desire, it can also be a good thing. “Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires [Greek, epithumia, strong desire] to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1Timothy 3:1 NIV). In Heaven, with conceivably the most original of sin with Lucifer, how could Lucifer sin without a constitutionally sinful nature? All Lucifer needed was a strong desire, where he could choose or refuse God. Lucifer was tempted to sin by his own strong desire, and that was while he was in a holy or sinless condition. Like us, Lucifer was “lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14 ESV). Do we now have further complications and difficulties to entice us to sin? Yes, but being born with a Sinful Nature is not one of them.
So, what about the “sinful nature [Greek, sarx, flesh]” of Romans 7, verses 18 and 25 in the New International Version (NIV)? Since only the Original Manuscripts of Scripture are infallible, then the NIV translators made an unfortunate choice. The Greek sarx in Romans 7:18, 25 is translated as “sinful nature” (NIV), “flesh” (ESV), “flesh” (KJV), and “flesh” (NASB). The world, the flesh, and the devil have been considered by ancient interpreters as enemies of the soul. “For everything in the world — the lust [Greek, epithumia, strong desire] of the flesh, the lust [epithumia] of the eyes, and the pride of life — comes not from the Father but from the world” (1John 2:16 NIV). Only when someone sins, are they correctly characterized with a sinful nature. “Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Ephesians 2:3 KJV). But, that nature cannot be transmitted to successive generations by physical birth. Only when we mistakenly interpret David’s proper self-condemnation, in his Psalm of penitence — “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5 NIV) — can we improperly attribute sin to a human fetus in the womb. By contrast, David wrote, “From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God” (Psalm 22:10 NIV). We would only comment, neither Psalm reflects a spiritual condition derived by physical transmission, for David would contradict himself. Instead, Psalm 22 depicts the mutual faithfulness of the Father to His One and Only Son, when He was begotten, while Psalm 51 portrays the completeness of David’s self-condemnation in repentance for murder, adultery, and casting shame on the God of Israel.
Returning to the Book of Romans, though systematic theologies, treatises, and expositions have attempted to rightly explain the spread and progression of sin in the human race, one verse particularly depicts the problem and solution. “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19 NIV). If we were to conclude that all are sinners because of physical birth through Adam, then we could as justly conclude all are made righteous through Christ’s death for the world. If Universal Salvation is to be rejected, then Sinners By Birth should also be rejected. Then, why is Paul so conflicted in Romans 7? “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19 NIV). If Moral Depravity is not like a communicable disease transmitted at birth — but instead, Moral Depravity is simply the act of sinning — then, what best explains how sinful parents so successfully produce sinful children? Physical Depravity is the physical condition of degenerating flesh [DNA] passed from one generation to the next, which occasions the stumbling into sin. The “lust [Greek, epithumia, strong attraction] of the flesh” (1John 2:16 NIV) is only the occasion for the sinning, but we sin when we quit seeking God with our whole heart. “My son, give me your heart and let your eyes delight in my ways” (Proverbs 23:26 NIV). “I seek You with all my heart; do not let me stray from Your commands” (Psalm 119:10 NIV). Only as “we keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25 NIV) will we be brought “into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21 KJV), where we experience the satisfaction for why our Creator created us and our Savior saved us.
Verse 15: “Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15 NIV).
“After desire [Greek, epithumia, “lust” (KJV), strong desire] has conceived [Greek, sullambanō, become pregnant], it gives birth to sin” (James 1:15 NIV). From desire to conception to birth is the development of sin. All of this occurs within the heart, “for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23 NIV). Both good and bad comes from the heart without notice, until it comes out. “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” (Matthew 12:35 NIV). When sin is “full-grown, [it] gives birth to death” (James 1:15 NIV). Death is the expected result of sin. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 NIV). To summarize, only when we give in to normal, natural desires — then, and only then — does it become sin. Then, and only then, are we correctly called sinners. And then, the result is death.
Verse 16: “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters” (James 1:16 NIV).
We should never deceive ourselves and blame God or any predisposition for why we sin, because sin is always and only a choice against God. “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8 NIV).
Verse 17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17 NIV).
God is the source of all good. “No one is good — except God alone” (Mark 10:18 NIV). Everything God does is good. “For everything God created is good” (1Timothy 4:4 NIV). If it is a good gift, then it came “down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17 NIV). This agrees with the Psalmist’s declaration of the stedfast love of God, “who made the great lights — His love endures forever. the sun to govern the day, His love endures forever. the moon and stars to govern the night; His love endures forever” (Psalm 136:7-9 NIV). What a wonderful picture of the unchanging, immutability of God, “who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17 NIV)! “I the Lord do not change” (Malachi 3:6 NIV). “Shifting shadows” (James 1:17 NIV) reminds us more of man, who James later compares to the vaporous “mist that appears for a little while then vanishes” (4:14 NIV).
Verse 18: “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all He created” (James 1:18 NIV).
He gave “us birth through the word of truth” (James 1:18 NIV), indicates the Word of God is alive and powerful, capable of producing New Life in us. “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1Peter 1:23 NIV). What is the significance of “firstfruits” (James 1:18 NIV)? All of God’s spiritual children are His firstborn — “to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23 NIV). Like the first grain taken in harvest, we are “holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of His harvest” (Jeremiah 2:3 NIV). The eminence of being designated by God as a “firstfruit,” is like His titling us as children of God. “Yet to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12 NIV). Apart from God’s children, only those, who are direct creations of God, have the honor of being specified as sons or children of God. Adam was identified as “the son of God” (Luke 3:38 NIV), and the heavenly angels were labeled “the sons of God” (Genesis 6:2). “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew Him not” (1John 3:1 KJV). God desires us to understand our great privilege to be His directly created firstfruits, which otherwise can only be said of Adam, His heavenly host, and angels.
Hearing and Doing the Word (1:19-27)
Verse 19: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19 NIV).
James again addresses his “dear brothers and sisters [Greek, adelphoi]” (James 1:19 NIV), and here, we may reflect on the choice of words from our translators. James uses the Greek root word adelphoi, which most commonly designates a brother or near kinsman, but may also refer to sisters — when the Greek, aner (man), is appended before adelphoi, e.g., “Men [andres] and brethren [adelphoi]” (Acts 1:16 KJV). In our more egalitarian 20th and 21st centuries, this is not surprising. The Greek text adelphoi of James 1:19 was understandably translated “brethren” (KJV 1611); but, it is most interesting, adelphoi was translated “brothers” (ESV 2001). Reflecting on the trend for updating translations for better “gender accuracy” (NASB 2020), why now? The Greek text did not change, but the world has. However disciples translate this text, it is most crucial that disciples “walk in love” (2John 1:6 NIV). If Christians cannot walk in love, then the translation battle is already lost. “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12 NIV). May God help us in this 21st century!
“Everyone should be quick to listen” (James 1:19 NIV) is interesting, because all will notice God has given us two ears and only one mouth. One of my greater shortcomings is the impatience of foolishly speaking what I do not know, rudely cutting off someone else, and impatiently not hearing what they had to say. Even the world quips, “Better to remain silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” May God grant mercy to any of His commentators! “To answer before listening — that is folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13 NIV). “Slow to speak” (James 1:19 NIV) does not refer to a speech impediment; but, if we can simply slow down our responses, we can think before we speak. Even better, we can listen. When we are not just competing for a platform to promote our ideas — even Gospel truth — then we would be exhibiting the life of Christ, not just preaching it. “Slow to become angry” (1:19 NIV) describes a disciple of Christ. This does not mean never angry, for even Jesus showed great emotion and anger, when He drove the money changers and other merchants out of the Temple courts. “Stop turning My Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:16 NIV). Anger is only appropriate, when we hate the sin God hates. “They aroused the Lord’s anger by their wicked deeds” (Psalm 106:29 NIV). Jesus “looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” (Mark 3:5 NIV).
Verse 20: “Because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:20 NIV).
“Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:20 NIV) because that anger results from offenses committed against ourselves, not God. Later, James informs us, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (3:18 NIV). Moses did not accompany Joshua into the Promised Land, because he lost his temper. Perhaps God would have allowed him to enter, but Moses committed the offense in full view of Israel. God could not pretend to ignore it. Moses forced His hand. “Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, Because you did not trust in Me enough to honor Me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them” (Numbers 20:11-12 NIV). We are to live like Christ, who only became angry, when His Father was affronted with sin. Personal offense committed against Himself was prayed for, even as He interceded for His crucifiers. “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth,” (2Timothy 2:24-25 NIV).
Verse 21: “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (James 1:21 NIV).
“Get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent” (James 1:21 NIV). In this modern age, we feel our technology has delivered a greater degree of control of our circumstances than ever before, but it has also produced unparalleled moral filth. We wonder how a God who knows all and sees all can possibly look upon the moral filth and evil in the world without corrupting Himself. “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves” (Habakkuk 1:13 NIV). Perhaps we could explain God’s situation by relating it to our own. Parents are required to punish their children, when they do wrong. “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them” (Proverbs 13:24 NIV). How can they discipline, if they did not see or know of their wrong doing? Likewise, God must see the most wicked behavior of mankind to know exactly how to punish it. “Far be it from you to do such a thing — to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25 NIV). We know the great harm exacted upon law enforcement and the justice system, who must track and prosecute the most sordid crimes. God be merciful to our police and justice system! “Humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (James 1:21 NIV).
I like that expression, “the word planted in you,” because it tells us that despite the impression, they weren’t listening, the seed of God’s Word has four different grounds: (1) Along the path, not understood. “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path” (Matthew 13:19 NIV). (2) Rocky ground, lasts a short time. “The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy” (Matthew 13:20 NIV). (3) Among thorns, choked, unfruitful. “The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22 NIV). (4) Good ground, several times what was sown. “But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (Matthew 13:23 NIV).
“Which can save you” ( James 1:21 NIV). The Word of God can save you, if you believe it. If your motivation to seek the Lord is weaker than all of the pressures brought to bear upon you, then you will be lost. “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15 NIV). If you will enter into Heaven, “from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12 NKJV). Be like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” put on the whole armor of God, and fight the good fight until you enter into the Celestial City. “11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:11-17 NIV).
Verse 22: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22 NIV).
“Do not merely listen” (James 1:22 NIV), for if you listen only, then you are being deceived. But, if you continually come back to the Word of God, making even imperceptible progress, then fight on! “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9 NIV). Do Not Give Up (DNGU)! Deception is hearing but not doing. Only one way to break the downward spiral. “Do what it says” (James 1:22 NIV)! When you obey the Gospel, you are obeying God’s Word, and are acting in concert with the Spirit of God! “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose” (Philippians 2:13 NIV).
Verse 23: “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror” (James 1:23 NIV).
You get a moral picture of yourself, when you look into the Word of God. It is like looking into a moral mirror. It works because Scripture is not merely a human book for literary analysis, but it is alive, because Jesus Himself claims to be the Word of God (John 1:1; Revelation 19:23). “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe” (1Thessalonians 2:13 NIV). Notice how you have to keep looking into a mirror to remember how you combed your hair? When you obey, heed, or put into practice God’s Word, then you are remembering it. God will not allow you to forget it in your old age! That is why we can forget factual knowledge, but keep accumulated wisdom, even in our advanced years. Lord, make it so for even me!
Verse 24: “And, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:24 NIV).
Back to our mirror analogy. Looking away and immediately forgetting means nothing was done to ensure remembering what was seen. Memory devices usually employ some kind of association to assist in memory. Unlike these memory mnemonics, God has provided His Spirit as the means to remember His commandments to keep. “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26 NIV). Even better, God’s Spirit given to us at baptism (Acts 2:38) will facilitate our obedience without overpowering our free choice. “And I will put My Spirit in you and move you to follow My decrees and be careful to keep My laws” (Ezekiel 36:27 NIV).
Verse 25: “But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it — not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it — they will be blessed in what they do” (James 1:25 NIV).
What is the explanation for how disciples “will be blessed in what they do” (James 1:25 NIV)? Two things are required to be blessed in whatever you do: (1) See the truth of God’s Word and understand the liberation it gives — “looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom” (1:25 NIV) — “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32 NIV). (2) Actively practice the truth, which is the opposite of forgetting — “continues in it — not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it” (James 1:25 NIV) — “Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on Him, If ye continue in My word, then are ye My disciples indeed” (John 8:31 KJV).
Verse 26: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26 NIV).
Who are “those who consider themselves religious” (1:26 NIV)? The truth of religion is tough enough to withstand the falsehoods of the world, but so delicate, it can only be received by tender, willing hearts. “Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them” (Luke 8:18 NIV). To consider yourself religious means to be self-aware of where you think you are before God. “Yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues” (James 1:26 NIV), means not to control the lips to speak only the truth. The voice of wisdom speaks, “My mouth speaks what is true, for my lips detest wickedness” (Proverbs 8:7 NIV). “Deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26 NIV). A hypocrite says one thing and does the other. Hypocritical disciples are the ruin of religion. God is able to find, expose, and re-convert them. Will honest religion disappear from the earth?
Verse 27: “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” (James 1:27 NIV).
The definition of Pure Religion is “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless” (James 1:27 NIV). Honest religion is “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (1:27 NIV). Looking after orphans is our relationship to our neighbors, while keeping oneself unspotted from the world is maintaining our holiness with God. Jesus agreed with this as a summary of True Religion: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27 NIV). What a better way to define True Religion!
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