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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
Next Section - Chapters 2 and 3