Understanding the Text


“Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:12).

Trials and temptations are God’s invitation to overcome.

Biography: James, the brother of Jesus
The Gospels tell us that at first Jesus’ brothers were skeptics (cf. John 7:5). After the Resurrection James, one of the brothers, became a leading figure in the Jerusalem church (cf. Acts 15:13–29; 21:17–25; Gal. 2:12). Church history calls him “James the Just,” and also gives him the nickname “Camel knees,” because the skin on his knees is supposed to have become calloused from spending so much time in prayer. According to Josephus, James was martyred inA.D 62.

God provides the wisdom we need to face trials (1:1–8), and perspective on poverty (vv. 9–11). God does not tempt us to do evil; He gives only good gifts (vv. 12–18). God’s Word can save us from anger and moral filth (vv. 19–22), but only if we practice it (vv. 23–25). The truly religious person cares for those in distress (vv. 26–27).

Understanding the Text
“To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” James 1:1. The greeting helps us grasp the historical setting. James wrote when the church was young, composed of Jewish believers. He wrote after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7), when severe persecution in Judea forced Christians to leave Jerusalem (8:1–3).
Understanding this setting helps us see why James is one of the least theological of the New Testament letters. Early Jewish Christians knew who Jesus is! They had heard Him teaching in the temple courts. They knew Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, personally. They might even have visited the empty tomb, and most likely were acquainted with 1 of the 500 witnesses who saw Christ after His resurrection (1 Cor. 15:6).

These scattered members of the Jerusalem church did not need to be taught who Jesus is: they knew the promised Messiah, the very Son of God!
And so James rightly assumed that his readers have faith in Christ, and moved immediately to his purpose for writing. In blunt, compelling prose James spoke about the lifestyle appropriate to those who know Jesus. And about the unique understanding faith brings to issues that are faced by all men, everywhere.
When we read this little book we can hear James—and the Holy Spirit through him-speak to us. For the lifestyle of faith is essentially the same for you and me as it was for those who first believed in Christ, nearly 2,000 years ago.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers” James 1:2–4. The last thing we usually do when trials come is rejoice. The Greek word here, peirasmos, suggests a difficult situation; a painful pressure. We can understand why the Jerusalem Christians, forced to leave their homes and flee to foreign lands, would face “trials of many kinds.” But to “consider it pure joy”?

James explained. God uses trials to develop our character. The process may be painful, but the product, maturity, is worth it!

This is one of the unique things about faith. It shapes our perspective. It lets us look at even painful experiences in a new light. And when we look at trials from the perspective of Christian faith, and see the product God intends to produce in us, we truly will be able to rejoice.

“Ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault” James 1:5–8. In Scripture “wisdom” is invariably the ability to apply knowledge in a real-life situation, and so make godly and right choices. The trouble is, some of us don’t really know what the wise thing to do is. That may have been the complaint of these early Christians, who were frustrated in the face of their “many kinds of trials.”

James’ advice was, “Ask God.” After all, God knows what’s best for us to do. And, James said, unlike some human beings, God gives generously to all without finding fault. Our Sarah would understand how important that is. She came in the office yesterday and asked for help with a fourth-grade English exercise. I looked at it, and rather than tell her the answers, asked questions to help her figure out the answers for herself. Soon she flounced out in a huff. I’m sure she was quite disgusted with a daddy who wasn’t at all generous in his answers, and seemed to her to find fault.
There’s no need to worry about that kind of response when we ask God for guidance and direction. He gives it to us—generously. And without finding fault.

But there is one condition. We must “believe and not doubt.” James, in going on to draw his picture of the “double-minded man,” helps us understand just what he meant. If we ask God for wisdom, we must be prepared to act on what He shows us. We can’t go to God and say, “Maybe I’d like to do it Your way, and maybe not.” We must go in faith, and ask without any hesitation or mental reservation.

If you and I are willing to do God’s will, He will show us what to do. But we can expect guidance only when we are ready to respond.

“Take pride in his high position” James 1:9–11. Christian faith also brings perspective to the inequities of life. In this world great gaps exist between rich and poor. And people evaluate themselves and others by the criterion of wealth. James suggested a way to balance things out. The poor man can take comfort in his high position in Christ. And the rich in his “low position.”

The thought seems to be that present trials serve to remind the rich man how fleeting and transitory life is—and thus guard him against the pride and self-confidence that insulate so many wealthy people from reality and from God.

“When tempted” James 1:13. The word for “temptation” is also peirasmos, the same word we met as “trial” in verse 2. Its use in Scripture is shaped by an Old Testament concept expressed in the Hebrew word nasah. Pressure exerted on an individual brings a reaction, through which the character or commitment of the believer is demonstrated. Temptations are intended to reveal the quality of one’s faith—not to trip a person up.

This is something we need to remember always. Our temptations are not evil. They are opportunities to display the beauty of Jesus and the reality of our faith.

“Humbly accept the Word” James 1:19–21. When temptations arise we can surrender to our inner urge to react sinfully. Or we can surrender to the guidance of God’s Word. James promises us that when we “humbly accept the Word” that Word will “save” us—from ourselves!

“Do not merely listen to the Word” James 1:22–25. There was another of those stories in the newspaper just last month. An older woman, alone, living in squalor, starved to death. And in her bedroom the police found hundreds of thousands of dollars stuffed in pillowcases.

What an image of the Christian, who has in Scripture all the resources needed for spiritual prosperity. But those resources will do us no good at all if we merely “listen” to the words of Scripture. To be of any value, we must look “intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it.”

Scripture blesses us. But only in doing it!

“Religion that God our Father accepts” James 1:26–27. Three of the five occurrences of the Greek word translated “religion” or “religious” are found here in these verses. The word portrays someone who performs the external acts of religion: who does what a religious person is expected to do.

On the one hand, James said that the religion of a person who acts religious but does not control his tongue is a sham. On the other, he said that true religion is not measured by attendance at church or ritual piety, but by acts of compassion intended to help those in distress. True religion, which expresses outwardly an honest inner faith, serves people in need.

Larry Richards

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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