About Jesus   -  Steve Sweetman

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Introduction and Chapter 1

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ch. 1:1    ch.1:2-18    ch. 1:19-27

My Commentary On The Book Of James


This commentary is based on the 1984 edition of the New International Version of the Bible. The chapter titles in this commentary correspond to those found in the NIV.

It is widely recognized that James the brother of Jesus wrote this letter. We do not really know just when James became a Christian, but it could have been after the resurrection when Jesus appeared to him. According to the wording of 1 Cor. 15:7 one might speculate that the appearing of the risen Lord was a personal appearing for James. It sure would be nice to have had some kind of record of this incident, but we donít. I canít really begin to imagine how James must have felt when the risen Jesus met and spoke with him. No wonder if James was not a believer before then, he sure was after.

James was one of the people waiting for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:14) In Acts 15 you see him as one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. Many say that he was in fact the main leader of the Jerusalem church. Although there is fairly good circumstantial evidence of this, to me it is still a little speculative. If he was not the main leader, he certainly was one of the main leaders.

Acts 21:18 speaks of "James and the rest of the elders", suggesting that he was one step above the other elders. This would give support to the idea the James was an elder above elders.

More than most of the canonical Books of the Bible there has been much debate over who actually wrote this book, when it was written, and even if it should be part of the Canon of Scripture

The date of this letter is unknown. There is no external or internal supporting evidence to prove conclusively any particular date. Some date the letter as early as AD 45, while others date it a late as AD 61 just before James was killed.

The reason why some date the book as early as 45 A. D. is somewhat speculative. They say that what James says in his book is very Jewish orientated, which it is.  They say that it must have been written prior to the Acts 15 meetings where it was decided that there was one gospel, and that was a gospel of grace without the works of the Law.  Both Jews and Gentiles could find salvation in Jesus without obeying the Law of Moses.  Those holding to an earlier dating say that James sounds too Jewish in his book to be after Acts 15.  If it was indeed after Acts 15, these people suggest that James would have modified his wording concerning works.   

The number one point to derive from this letter is that if someone claims to have real faith, that faith will be evident in that personís actions. Thus true faith produces works. We will see the apparent contradiction between Paul and James and deal with it as it comes up.

This letter has had its controversy over the years as I have stated because of what James says concerning salvation and works. Martin Luther had very little respect for this letter because he believed that James was promoting a works based salvation. Although I do not particularity adopt this thinking, I can certainly see how people could think that way from this letter.

Some, like Luther have suggested this book should be treated as second rate because it does not clearly set forth "the gospel of Christ". It speak more of works and law, instead of Christ and grace. Whereas Paul would say that Christ is the end of the Law (Rom. 10:4) James speaks of works of love fulfilling the Law.

I believe what James was maybe struggling with, if you can use the word struggle, is the fact that many people said they had faith in Christ, but their lives did not match their words. So how could this be? How could someone claim to have come to faith but act no differently than they always have? James would thus say that they really did not come to true faith, for if they had, their lives would prove it. We still have this problem today. Believing, and having faith is not something of the mind alone. Faith and believing is not simply mentally accepting the truth as truth. It is in fact giving yourself to this truth after you have mentally accepted it. Then of course, this truth is Jesus Himself. Therefore if we claim to believe in Jesus, what we are really saying is that we have given our lives to Him and allowing a relationship to be built with Him that produces real change in our lives. If this is not our understanding on what faith and believing is all about, then we have the wrong concept of faith. Faith is not mental assent to the truth alone.

Although I do not believe that James believed in a gospel of works, I do have to recognize the Jewishness of James. It is apparent from the brief appearances we see of James in Acts and Galatians that he did not give up his Jewish tradition so quickly as Paul did. He continued with Jewish practices. He did not claim that these practices saved him. He only continued to live within the boundaries of the tradition he knew.

History tells us that James prayed constantly in the Temple for the Jewish people. He prayed so much that his knees became abnormally large.

James may have not relinquished His Jewishness, but to the Jewish leaders he did. His acceptance of the grace of Christ was an irritating factor to the Jewish leaders. In 61 AD there was a change in Roman leadership in Jerusalem and during this transition period the Jewish leaders were able to have James arrested and killed.

This book is not a teaching orientated as Paulís letters are. James speaks more to the moral character of those who claim to follow Jesus. He does not intend to straighten peoples thinking out. The reason for this may be that there were those who claimed faith yet lived lives that were immoral. This can be seen in the Corinthian church that Paul addresses in his first letter to that church. What James is saying to these people is that you cannot drop off at a prostitutes house on the way home from church. James had a hard time thinking such a person was really a true Christian. One reason why some lived this way was because of the gospel of grace that Paul taught. They were taking advantage of the grace of God, and sinning so that more grace would abound in their direction as Paul says in Romans. Of course Paul was not promoting sin, but at the same time he would not compromise this gospel of grace just because some abused it.

James on the other hand did not clearly promote the gospel of grace in his letter. He only challenged those who claimed to be Christians and acted as if they werenít. He "might" have felt if he promoted the gospel as Paul did, he would be encouraging people to continue in their sin. So he approached the topic of salvation from a different perspective.

So let us see what James has to say about all of this.

Greetings (ch. 1:1)

James does not call himself an apostle as Paul might have. He just called himself "a servant of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ". He did not say that he was the earthly brother of Jesus. It sure would have solved some of our problems concerning authorship of this letter if he had. If this was truly the James, the earthly brother of Jesus, he did not promote this point in the least. Maybe this was intentional on his part.

James directs this letter to the "twelve tribes" that were scattered throughout the known world as a result of persecution. Was he speaking to the Jewish aspect of the church, or was he speaking to the whole church? At least we can say that he was speaking to Jewish Christians from this verse.

It is said that James stayed in Jerusalem. He did not flee because of the persecution like many others. He stayed there until his death. This could have been because of the intense nature of his Jewishness. He was not ready to throw all of his tradition away. He stayed in the centre of the Jewish tradition and wrote this letter to his Jewish Christian brothers.

Trials And Temptations (ch. 1:3-18)

As I have said earlier, this book is not necessarily a doctrinal book, but more of a letter of exhortation. James starts this exhortation right in the third verse. He says, "count it pure joy Ö whenever you face trials of many kinds". The Christians that would have read this were going through many trials, both from the Jewish population and also from the Roman or Gentile community. You might well imagine someone becoming a Christian one day and then the next day being mocked and mistreated by family and friends. Then beyond that many were persecuted in ways that meant imprisonment, torture, and even death. Becoming a Christian in those days meant a major commitment to Jesus. One would understand before he or she decided to follow Jesus that there would be a great price paid for the choice. So James is telling these people to view all of these hardships in "a joyous way".

These many trials from without are considered by James
"a testing of faith". Trials are a test to prove that the trust we say we have in Jesus is true. If it is true, it will stand the test and will be strengthened and will produced "perseverance".

James says that perseverance is important. He says in verse 4 that without perseverance we will never be mature as a Christian. We will never be the complete Christian as we should be. Yet perseverance comes because of hard times in our lives. Therefore the folly of believing that once you become a Christian everything will be joyous and fantastic is far from Biblical truth. James is saying that we need trials. He is saying that trials arenít a joyous time, but we need to consider them as a joyous time, even though we donít feel the joy in the midst of the trials. The resulting character quality in our lives because of the testing of our faith will mean that we are mature in our trust.

Trials will make us complete, lacking nothing, James says, but if we do lack something, wisdom in this case, God will give that wisdom to us in abundance. Yet the giving of this wisdom here is in the context of one who is being persecuted, one who is trusting Jesus in the midst of his trials. If this person is not trusting Jesus in his trials, I am not convinced that this promise of wisdom can be claimed by that person.

In verse 6 James says that when we ask for wisdom in the midst of our trials we must ask with as much trust as we have. We must ask in faith, believing God will answer our prayers. We should not doubt. If we doubt, we show an instability in our trust. James further says, that if we doubt when we ask, we should not expect to receive anything from God. Of course when we doubt, we are not trusting. My suggestion is to be honest with the Lord. If when we pray, we have doubts, pray that our Lord will help us in these doubts. I am sure as our faith or trust gets tested, we will have doubts.

The testing of our faith puts us on the edge of faith and doubt. The Lord is trying to expand our trust by pushing the limits of our trust in Him. So during the process of pushing these limits, we will waver back and forth until we pass the test and the wavering ends. Once we can trust God at that point He may decide to move us on to another test. At this point the process happens over again. We are on the edge of faith and doubt. We cross back and forth that line until we finally get it down. We finally have learned to trust Jesus in that area of our life

We should note here that it is not always God who brings about these tests. Life itself is a testing ground. In the case of the readers of this letter, the testing came about because of the persecution they were suffering due to their faith.

Yet if we never learn to cross this line where faith and doubt meet, and if we continue in doubt, we cannot expect anything from the Lord and it shows that we are unstable, not only in our faith, but "unstable in all we do. (ch.1:8)

Verses 9 through 11 bring in a new thought. James recognizes that in all of the churches there is both rich and poor, those of high public standing and those of low public standing. For those who are not so fortunate he encourages them to rejoice in the fact that they have a new higher position in Christ. Although James does not actually use the term "in Christ", we can assume this is what he is talking about.

For those who are rich and of high degree in the community, James suggest that they be careful in how they think of themselves because there riches will fade away as a flower dies with lack of rain. The bottom line point to be made here is that earthy success and riches are secondary to heavenly and spiritual successes that we find in Christ. As Christians we are all alike, no matter of our earthly status.

Verse 12 returns to the notion of trials. James says that the man who perseveres through all of these persecutions will receive an eternal reward that far outweighs any material blessing on earth. With an eye towards these eternal rewards given to us by God Himself, we should be able to persevere. Yet the very nature of this sentence suggests that not all will persevere. Some will fall by the wayside.

Verse 13 says, "when tempted, no one should say, ĎGod is tempting meí. We need to understand that in context that the tempting in this case has to do with the tempting to sin. God does not temp anyone to sin. He does in fact tempt or test peopleís faith and trust in Him. The Greek word "peirazo" is the word that is translated as "tempt" in this verse. The same word is translated as "test" in Heb. 11:17 where God "tests Abrahamís faith" In this case the testing has nothing to do with sin.

James goes on to say that we can blame no one but ourselves when we sin. Verse 14 says, "each one is tempted when, by his own evil desires, he is dragged away and enticed. So it is not God that causes us to sin. It is not even the devil that causes us to sin. Our own evil nature is always trying to drag us away from godliness towards sin. We, as a result of the fall in the Garden of Eden, are born with evil desires. These desires in themselves are not sin. In verse 15 James says that once "the desires have been conceived, it gives birth to sin. For example, someone might be predisposed to not telling the truth. That in itself is not sin. Yet if that person gives in to that predisposition and speaks falsehood, then at that point he sins. Then as James says, that sin leads to death, something that Paul would agree with.

The last paragraph of this section James tells his readers that "every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of the heavenly lights". I think that James can say this because in the beginning God created everything and He said that all He created "was very good". Therefore all goodness eventually can be traced back to God, even if an evil person gives you a gift. This thought concerning good gifts is in relation to the evil desires within man. The evil desires come from man, while the good gifts come from God.

God is referred to in this verse as the "Father of heavenly lights". Once again, this speaks to God as Creator. With His spoken word all heavenly lights came into being. James says that our Father "does not change like shifting shadows". The lights in the heavens, create a shadow. When we walk in the light of the sun or moon, we can see our shadows on the ground. Depending on our position to the sun or moon, and their movement across the sky, our shadow will shift and move. God, in who He is, that is, His very essence does not change. As I have said before, God may change in the way He does things from one age to another, but He Himself never changes.

"He (God) chose to give us birth through the word of truth". We who have entrusted Jesus with our lives which includes our salvation have been chosen by God. We all have been called, yet those of us who have responded positively to His call have been chosen "to become a kind of first fruits". We are the first of a new generation of people. We are a new type of person. We are sons of God.

Notice James use of the words, "word of truth". We have been saved by the "word of truth". I have always said that I am a Christian, not merely for the benefits that I derive from being a Christian. I am a Christian because I have come to know that Jesus and who He is and what He says is true. If indeed Jesus is the universal truth, then I have no other logical choice to make than to follow Him. We follow Jesus because He is truth, not because He gives us things, including our salvation. If we follow Him for any other reason, when things get tough, we will most likely stop following Him. We will stop following Him because we are not getting what we think we should from Him in the hard times. Yet if we follow Him because He is the central truth of the universe, it doesnít matter what befalls us. He is still who He is, and we will not deny Him.

James closes this section by saying that we are a kind of "firstfruits of all he created". You see at the fall, in the Garden of Eden, all creation was cursed and therefore needed redemption and restoration to Godís original intent in creation. We, as ones trusting in Jesus have tasted this redemption and restoration in salvation that will be later realized in its totality when Christ returns. Yet the rest of creation has not yet experienced this as we have. As Paul says in Rom. 8, the rest of creation is waiting for that day of restoration to come. Until that day comes, we are a kind of firstfruits. We are the first in creation to experience Godís plan of redemptive restoration.

Listening And Doing (ch. 1:19-27)

Verse 19 continues with James exhortations. Remember, James is not necessarily writing a major doctrinal exposition. He is exhorting his readers in the way that they should live. In verse 19 he says that we should all be, "quick to listen and slow to speak". James will have more to say about the use of our tongues, but here he gives some wise advise. Being quick to listen and slow to speak does not come natural for most of us. We would rather be first to say what is on our minds. We like being first to give advise, to contradict, or to spew out words of anger. James says that we would do well if we listen to what others say before responding so quickly. This basic principle of life is fundamental in any kind of debate or dispute. When two are on opposite sides of an issue, noting will get resolved when they donít listen to the other.

The most basic point in art of arguing, if you would like to call it an art, some people do, is to listen carefully to what the other is saying and then respond specifically to what they are saying. Too often we donít listen. We are busy formulating our own opinion as the other speaks. Then way to often we donít respond specifically to what that person is saying. We are responding to what they might have said or done hours, days or weeks earlier. As a result that discussion is disjointed and ineffective. Both people are missing each other in the words they speak. What could become a means of bringing peace becomes something that makes the problem worse. The argument therefore brakes down and will accomplish nothing but more hurt feelings.

James tells us here to be swift to listen, and slow to speak, but he also adds another phrase. He says that we should be "slow to become angry". He is relating being quick to speak to becoming angry. He is talking about times of conflict here. He tells us that we should not get angry too quickly, suggesting that it is within our power not to become angry. I believe that people often become angry when they donít have to. They only choose to become angry in the sense that they have chose not to try to relax and let their emotions settle down.

James says that when we become angry "we do not bring about the righteous life that God desires". There is what you might call a holy anger. The famous example of this is when Jesus got upset and threw over the venders tables as they sold in the temple. Yet most of the time when we feel angry, it is not holy anger. Most likely we should feel more holy anger than we do, but due to our worldly way of living we simply donít get upset with the things we should be upset with. At the same time we get angry over other things that do not promote the Kingdom of God.

In verse 21 James concludes by saying, "therefore get rid of all moral filth and evil that is so prevalentÖ." James now makes the circle of sin that he is talking about bigger. Not only is he talking about unreasonable anger, but he is speaking about all kinds of evil and moral sin, anger included. This is what I believe has frustrated James to write this letter. It is the idea that such evil and moral filth is "so prevalent" among Godís people, and this should not be. People who claim faith in Jesus are living as if they had no faith. This in itself has made James upset. You might even say that he has a holy anger concerning these things.

After telling these people to get rid of such sin, he tells them to "humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you". What does the phrase, "and can save you mean". Does this mean that those who have not thrown off the filth of sin are not saved? Not necessarily. A person, when he comes to Christ, brings with him all sorts of things that are inconsistent with the Christian life. Although still possessing these things, they should not remain there forever, for if they do, they will bring that person down to a possible point where they may not believe any more. Thus the Word of God that has been accepted in a life at initial salvation can be choked out by sin that does not get dealt with. If these things persist, then the Word of Truth can save them, but only if sin doesnít choke the Word out. As I often say, good works donít save you, and bad works donít get you unsaved. But bad works can bring you to a place where you decide to reject the truth, and at that moment you get unsaved.

James continues to say in verse 22 to "not merely listen to the Word and so deceive yourself. Do what it says." There were many in Jamesís day, and there are many today that listen to the Word of God. His word passes in one ear and out the other. The Word of Truth isnít given opportunity to make a change in the life. Those who hear and even mentally believe the truth without applying it are deceived into thinking they are right before the Lord. Simply hearing the word of salvation and mentally accepting it does not constitute salvation. You must take that word and respond by repenting and trusting Jesus. The same for each and every step we take in the Lord. We hear the Word, we trust that it is true, and then we apply it, or obey it. As we apply the Word of God to our lives we will grow as a Christian and that Word will make a positive change in our lives. If we think that we are something because we hear the Word only, we are deceived.

James says that those who hear the Word and do not apply it is like someone who looks into a mirror and when he leaves doesnít remember what he looks like. Thatís not too smart. Thatís not saying much about that person.

"But the man who looks intently into the perfect Law that gives men freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it Ė he will be blessed in what he does." (ch. 1:25) In this verse we see James saying that the man who "intently continues to listen and to do" will be very blessed. The application of Godís truth can only bring good things into our lives.

Notice the use of the phrase "law of freedom" that James uses here. What Law could he be talking about? Could this be the Old Testament Law? I donít think so. I think that James is indeed showing his Jewishness by using this phrase, but I donít think that he would call the Old Testament Law, a law of freedom. Definitely Paul wouldnít make such a comment, yet some might argue that James would. I believe that James understood the New Covenant to be the "perfect Law of freedom", or else he himself could not be a true follower of Jesus. James is only using Jewish words to help explain a New Testament concepts to Jewish people. He is talking to many Jewish brothers, so he is using their language. James also has continued in his Jewish lifestyle, not making that lifestyle a means to salvation, but simply carrying on in its tradition. Therefore he is speaking from his own Jewish perspective.

In verse 26 James speaks of another person who is being deceived. The first deceived person was the man who heard the Word but did not apply it. This deceived person is someone who claims to be religious but does not have any control over his tongue. This man, James says, is deceived. He goes one step further and says that his "religion is worthless". If this manís religion is worthless, then he doesnít have true religion. James would question the salvation of such a person.

James closes this chapter by saying, "religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless: is too look after orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world". Religion is the outworking of oneís faith. So if someone claims to be religious, they must have to be doing something that is positive. One who only complains, argues and has no control over his tongue is not demonstrating any positive actions, thus his religion is false. But the one who is doing good to others is demonstrating that he is truly religious because he is actually living out what the word religion means.

One last phrase that James uses here that is common among all New Testament apostles is the words "not polluted by the world". New Testament Christians did not have much good to say about the world around them. They felt that they needed to be rescued from their present generation. They felt the world and its way of thinking and doing things was something to flee from. Here James says that if you are truly religious, you will do your best not to be polluted by the world. You will do your best not to have the world influence you.

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