James 1:1-27

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As a proper name, the English form “James” is not the best representation for the Greek Jákobos or the Hebrew Ya‘qov (Jacob). This name was common among the Jews, indicating that the writer of the letter was known so well that his original readers would not have been puzzled about who had sent it. James identified himself as a “slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” thereby acknowledging that he belonged to both and that he had been granted the inestimable honor of being in their service and accountable to them. The letter is addressed to the “twelve tribes in the dispersion.” This suggests that James regarded all the believers in Jesus Christ who lived in various parts of the Greco-Roman world as part of the real Israel, God’s true people. The apostle Paul expressed himself similarly, referring to non-Jewish believers as having been grafted into the olive tree that had its roots in the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (1:1; Romans 11:11-24; see the Notes section.)

The Greek term rendered “greetings” (chaírein, a form of chaíro) often appears at the beginning of other ancient letters. This expression, a form of the verb meaning “rejoice” (chaíro), is a greeting that wishes one well. (1:1)

James addressed believers as “brothers,” fellow members of the family of God’s beloved children. He encouraged them to regard the trials they might face as “all joy.” The encounter with trials would be unexpected and could be in the form of persecution, sickness, or hardships resulting from adverse circumstances. In themselves, all trials are distressing and unpleasant. From the standpoint of the spiritual benefits they could gain from faithfully enduring their various trials, however, believers could face them with joy. (1:2)

They knew that trials would test their faith in God and Christ and that, when subjected to testing, their faith could produce endurance. Their faith would enable them to bear up patiently under the distressing situation while they looked confidently to their heavenly Father to sustain them by means of his spirit. (1:3)

To have a faith that has survived testing, believers need to let the trial take its full course without becoming bitter, resentful, disheartened, or ready to give up. By thus remaining steadfast, they would allow endurance to develop fully (literally, “let endurance have perfect work”). With a tested faith that has endured distress to the very end, believers would be “perfect” or complete, “whole” or sound in every respect, with “nothing lacking.” They would be in possession of a stronger faith, a tested capacity for steadfast endurance, and enhanced compassion and concern for others who are experiencing affliction. (1:4)

In the context of this letter, the lack in wisdom would relate to one’s not knowing how to deal with a particular trial. If any believers found themselves to be lacking in wisdom, they should ask “the giving God” for it. His giving is described as haplós, a Greek adverb that can mean “sincerely,” “openly,” “generously,” “ungrudgingly,” or “without reservation.” His giving is also without reproaching, berating, or disparaging. His spirit would never engender within believers who make their petitions for wisdom any feelings of unworthiness, guilt, being foolish, or having imposed on him with too many requests. God is not like humans who tend to become irritated when they are repeatedly asked for aid by persons who never seem to be able to help themselves. Believers can be confident that God will give them the wisdom for which they petition him. (1:5)

When praying to God, they should do so “in faith, not doubting [form of diakríno].” The Greek verb diakríno can mean to “evaluate,” “judge,” or “differentiate.” Persons who doubt are at odds with themselves, differentiating one course from another but still unable to determine just what they should do. When asking “in faith,” believers would be doing so with the confidence that God’s answer will be in keeping with what they truly need. A doubter, on the other hand, would be “like a wave of the sea, driven by wind and tossed about.” Waves are unstable, and so are doubters when they are faced with distressing circumstances comparable to wind. Plagued by doubts, they do not allow themselves to trust fully in the wisdom that God generously supplies. They yield to the pressure that the changing external circumstances produce. (1:6)

A man who doubts should not expect to receive anything from the Lord to whom his petitions are addressed. As one who is at odds with himself, such a man would not be receptive to the wisdom that God grants generously. The doubter does not really trust God and engages in an internal battle with godly wisdom, for the external circumstances sway his thinking in various directions. (1:7)

The doubter is double-minded (literally, “double-souled”), “unstable in all his ways.” He is like two persons, with divided loyalties, and not single-minded in his devotion to God and earnest desire to do his will. In all his ways or actions, the doubter is unstable or unsteady. He cannot be relied upon for adhering to a divinely approved course, for the ever-changing external circumstances continue to influence his attitude, words, and deeds. (1:8)

Believers found themselves in a variety of situations, with many being poor while some among them prospered materially. Whatever their circumstances proved to be, they needed to avoid becoming preoccupied with what they possessed or did not possess from a material standpoint. The “lowly brother,” one of limited means and an inferior social status, had little control of his life. From a spiritual standpoint, though, he could “boast” or glory in “his exaltation.” Upon putting faith in Jesus Christ and what his sacrificial death accomplished, the lowly believer gained the dignified standing of a beloved “son” or child of God. He came to be an heir with Christ, assured of receiving all the privileges and blessings that are associated with this heirship. In the family of God’s children, the “lowly brother” does not have an inferior standing but has the same dignity as all the other “sons,” for Christ alone is the “firstborn,” the preeminent one. Accordingly, the “lowly brother” had good reason for taking pride in what God through Christ had done for him. (1:9; Romans 8:16, 17, 29; Galatians 3:28, 29; Ephesians 3:6)

A wealthy brother should boast or glory in his humiliation. Before coming to be a believer, he enjoyed an honorable standing in the Greco-Roman world. As a possessor of significant means, he was respected and exercised considerable control over his personal affairs. Upon putting faith in Jesus Christ, he identified himself with a body of people whom unbelievers viewed with contempt. Moreover, the wealthy brother also came to recognize that the standing he enjoyed on account of his possessions rested on a false foundation, a foundation that had no permanence. This resulted in a different view of himself, one that was not based on his riches. Apart from his possessions, he was no different from any other person, and so he was humbled. (1:10)

Wealth is transitory, and so a rich man (from the standpoint of his identity as it relates to his possessions) perishes like a beautiful flower that fades and withers. His identity is just as transitory as the riches on which it is based. (1:10; see the Notes section.)

In the case of vegetation, the scorching heat from the risen sun (or the risen sun along with a scorching wind) dried up the grass, and “the blossom [‘its blossom,’ according to other manuscripts] fell, and the beauty of its appearance [literally, ‘face’] perished; so also the rich man will wither away in his ways.” It does not take long for the sun’s intense heat to dry up the grass. Especially does this happen quickly when a scorching wind accompanies the intense heat from the rays of the summer sun. Faded, dried-up blossoms drop from their stems. Nothing remains of the former beauty of the flowers. Likewise, it proves to be with the rich man as he carries out his pursuits. The time comes when his life ends, and the flourishing state he enjoyed while dressed in finery and in control of abundant means then fades away. Death parts the wealthy man from all his material possessions. (1:11)

Returning to the subject of trials, James pronounced the man who endured them as being “fortunate,” or in a highly desirable state. This is because the individual’s remaining faithful to God when experiencing trials would result in his receiving the “crown of life.” This “crown” is life itself, which is what God has promised to those who love him. “Life” is the real life of an enduring approved relationship with God (and also with his Son), and receiving the “crown of life” signifies being granted this life. All who love God, demonstrating that love by earnestly seeking to do his will, can be confident about receiving the “crown of life.” The assurance is based on God’s unchangeable promise. (1:12; see the Notes section.)

When experiencing trials, a believer should not say, “I am being tried by God, for God cannot be tried with evils and does not try anyone.” One’s attributing being tried, tested, or tempted to God could hinder one from regarding him as a loving and caring Father. He is absolutely free from even the slightest taint of defilement and so cannot be tried or tempted with bad, or any kind of moral corruption, to act in a manner that is contrary to his holiness or purity. Therefore, he would never seduce anyone to do wrong, making evil look attractive or desirable to the individual. As a loving Father, he will come to the aid of his beloved children who appeal to him, strengthening them with his spirit to endure the distressing circumstances they may be experiencing at the time. (1:13)

Temptation arises from an individual’s own desire, which exerts tremendous pressure to act and has entrapping power. When faced with a distressing situation, a person’s natural desire is for relief. If the only discernible avenue of escape from the painful circumstance is one that would be out of harmony with God’s upright ways, the desire for relief could build up in individuals to the point of prompting them to consider taking the wrong course and then seduce them to act on it. (1:14)

Once a wrong desire is allowed to grow unchecked, it becomes “fertile” or fully developed. The desire then impels the individual to act on it, thus “giving birth to sin” (a missing of the mark of loyal obedience to God). Nothing good can come from sin, for it always leads to condemnation. So, in its fully developed state, sin breeds death. (1:15; compare Romans 6:23.)

James admonished his “beloved brothers,” fellow members of his family of God’s children, not to be misled. They should never deceive themselves into thinking that God is the one who tries or tempts them, failing to remember that the source of temptation is an individual’s own wrong desire that he has failed to dismiss or resist with the aid God supplies through his spirit. (1:16)

Nothing bad ever comes from God. “From above,” from his exalted heavenly realm, only comes the bestowal of good and of every gift that is “perfect,” without flaw and exactly what is needed for well-being. This differs from the giving of sinful humans. They may do so with ulterior motives. At times their presents can even be harmful to the recipients. The bountiful good gifts come from a loving Father who deeply cares for his children and whose generosity is pure. (1:17)

He is the “Father of the lights,” and so he could never be linked to anything of an evil nature. Corrupt individuals are the ones who try to conceal their actions, often committing their vile deeds under the cover of darkness. God, however, is consistent in never deviating from his being the “Father of the lights” and, therefore, the source of what is truly good and always beneficial to the recipients. As the Creator of the sun, moon, and stars, he is the “Father of lights.” (Jeremiah 31:35) He is also the source of enlightenment, of the knowledge that leads to the real life of an enduring relationship with him. (2 Corinthians 4:6) Depending on its perceived position in the sky in relation to the earth, the sun casts shadows and the degree of warmth at various times or locations differs considerably. With God, no such variations exist. There is nothing comparable to the lengthening or shortening of shadows or their appearance and disappearance. God is always dependable, never changing in giving what is good and in the best interests of his beloved children. (1:17; see the Notes section.)

The approved relationship that believers have with God came about because he willed it. By means of the “word of truth,” he brought them to birth as his children to be a kind of “firstfruits of his creatures.” This “word of truth” is the message about Christ and how, through him and his sacrificial death, humans can be forgiven of their sins and reconciled to his Father as members of his family. It is the “word of truth,” for it is a truthful or wholly dependable message. The individual’s response in faith to this “word” results in a newness of life as a person forgiven of sin and no longer under the condemnation of death. (1:18)

As a kind of “firstfruits” among God’s creatures, believers are set apart as holy for him and, therefore, objects of his special care. In ancient Israel, the firstfruits were offered to God. Consequently, in being designated as a kind of firstfruits, believers are under obligation to present themselves as an acceptable offering to God, putting their all at his disposal for the doing of his will. (1:18; Romans 12:1)

In every aspect of life (disposition, word, and conduct), believers should behave as God’s obedient children. James exhorted his beloved brothers to be “quick in hearing,” responsive or obedient to divine direction, “slow in speaking, slow in wrath.” (1:19; see the Notes section.)

Later (in 3:1), James admonished his readers not to be hasty about seeking to be teachers of fellow believers. Possibly this is included in being “slow” to speak, not pushing oneself forward as an instructor of others without really being qualified to do so. (Compare 1 Timothy 1:7.) Other situations calling for being slow to speak would be when such speaking could lead to quarrels and an escalation of personal attacks, or make one a busybody for being too free in giving unsolicited advice. Moreover, before responding to others about significant matters, one should listen carefully and give serious thought before making a reply. (1:19)

Anciently, like today, there was much in the world that could make one angry. Believers had to exercise care that they did not begin to rail angrily against individuals and about injustices. They needed to be patient, not being quick to take offense when others acted in an unfair, unkind, or thoughtless manner. When being corrected or called to account for an indiscretion, many tend to respond in anger. Believers, however, should endeavor to avoid becoming irritated and be willing to acknowledge their error. In verse 21, the reference is to acceptance of the saving “word” or message with “meekness,” or with humility, not in a spirit of angry resistance. Whenever God’s word calls for a change in one’s attitude, speech, or conduct, the believer would want to submit readily. (1:19)

Wrath is to be avoided, for it does not produce anything that promotes God’s righteousness. Instead, wrath is often the reflection of a justifying or vengeful spirit, and results from a failure to consider that God is the one who will right injustices and judge by means of his Son with absolute impartiality. (1:20)

“Therefore” (that is, because human wrath does not effect divine righteousness but runs counter to it), believers need to cast away “all filthiness” (everything that is impure and repugnant in God’s sight) and the “surplus [perisseía] of evil.” The Greek word perisseía can mean “abundance,” “surplus,” or “excess,” and the expression “surplus of evil” could refer to any evil that might still be clinging to believers. Possibly this expression relates to the abundance of evil that is all around believers but which must be banished from their lives. The “evil” could apply to any attitudes, words, or deeds that are unloving or contrary to God’s pure and just ways. Translators have variously rendered the expression “surplus of evil” as “wicked excess” (REB), “the evil that is so prevalent” (NIV), “every other evil which touches the lives of others” (J. B. Phillips), and “remnants of evil.” (NJB) Everything that is abhorrent and corrupt must be banished from the life of believers in order for them to be transformed by God’s word and spirit. (1:21)

Anything that is sordid or corrupt would be resistant to God’s word that calls upon believers to conduct themselves as his obedient children who are earnestly seeking to live a life of moral purity. Their getting rid of everything that is morally defiling puts them in a condition where they, with meekness or humility, can be responsive to the “implanted word that is able to save [their] souls.” This “word” is the message about Christ, which they initially embraced upon putting faith in him and his sacrificial death for them. As having been embraced by them, this word can be spoken of as the “implanted word.” This “implanted word” has the power to save “their souls” or to deliver them as individuals from condemnation, for it reveals what they need to do as God’s children to live in a manner that would meet his approval. In keeping with their new status as God’s children, they must cease to live a life of sin and to continue living a life of faith, a faith that reveals their love for him and his ways. Their living in this manner requires that they continue to be accepting of the “implanted word,” letting it (in conjunction with God’s spirit) progressively transform them into the persons their heavenly Father wants them to be as his children, finally to be completely liberated from sin and thereafter to enjoy an enduring relationship with him and his Son as sinless members of his family. (1:21)

The saving power of the “word” or message relating to Christ and his sacrifice depends on the continued obedient response of the believer, a response that reflects meekness or humility. More is required than just respectful listening. James urged, “But become doers of the word, and not hearers only, misleading yourselves.” The message about Christ must be lived, with his example and teaching governing the believer’s disposition, words, and deeds. Persons who merely listen without recognizing their weighty responsibility of living in a manner that honors God and Christ are deceiving themselves. A mere confession of the lips is empty when not backed by corresponding action. (1:22) Jesus Christ made this clear when he said, “But why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46) “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but the one doing the will of my Father [will].” (Matthew 7:21)

James likened a mere “hearer of” or “listener” to the “word” (that is, a person who is not a doer or fails to put what he hears into practice) to a man who looks at his face (literally, “the face of his birth”) in a mirror. The expression “face of his birth” could signify the natural features of the face, with the emphasis being just on the outward or surface appearance. (1:23)

Once the man stops looking at his face in the mirror and then attends to his affairs, he forgets all about the reflected image in the mirror. So it is with individuals who listen to the message about Christ but who are not transformed by it. Outwardly they may profess to believe, but they continue to live their lives as they did formerly, giving no thought to the responsibilities that acceptance of the message imposed on them. Faith in God and Christ does not become the governing principle in their lives. (1:24)

Unlike the mere hearer of the word, the one who listens and acts on what is heard gives the message undivided attention. The Greek verb parakypto expresses what he does about the “perfect law of freedom.” This term (parakypto) literally means to “bend down beside” or to “bend over” and so is indicative of the special attention one would give when bending over to take a closer look at something. Accordingly, the responsive listener manifests an earnest interest in the “law of freedom.” This “law” is the good news about Christ and what he accomplished when laying down his life sacrificially. As it relates to Christ, the “law” includes what he taught by word and example. For his disciples, his authoritative teaching has the force of law. It is the “law of freedom,” for an obedient response in faith leads to liberation from sin. From the standpoint of attaining its objective and including all that is essential for those who choose to live in harmony with it, it is a “perfect” or flawless law. (1:25)

The responsive listener does more than just give the “perfect law of freedom” his full attention on particular occasions, he “stays” with it, continuing to seek to be guided by it. This “law” proves to be the governing principle of his whole life. So he is does not become a “forgetful hearer,” but lets the “law of freedom” guide him in all affairs of life. As a doer of the “work” (the good work that the “law of freedom” prompts and which is a product of genuine love for God, Christ, and fellow humans), the individual will be happy (makários) in doing it. The Greek term makários, in this context, denotes a state of inner joy and well-being resulting from knowing that one is doing what is pleasing to God. (1:25)

A person may think of himself as “religious,” “pious,” or “godly.” If, however, he does not bridle his tongue, he would be guilty of “deceiving his heart.” This would be a serious self-deception, for it involves the “heart” or inmost self. An unbridled tongue expresses what is hurtful and reveals a lack of love for others. All attitudes, words, and actions that are contrary to love violate the “perfect law of freedom.” By word and example, Jesus Christ revealed the kind of self-sacrificing love his disciples must have, and this includes using the tongue in a manner that has a wholesome effect on others. (Matthew 5:43-48; John 13:34, 35; 15:12, 13; Romans 13:8-10; Ephesians 4:29) The person who misuses his tongue may think of himself as godly, but his “piety” or religious profession is empty, bringing no honor to God and Christ. (1:26; see the Notes section.)

The “piety” or godliness that “our God and Father” acknowledges as “pure and undefiled is this, to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself spotless from the world.” Everything that is contrary to love is sinful and, therefore, impure and defiling. Those whom God acknowledges as his own respond to the needs of others in a loving and caring way. In the Greco-Roman world, orphans and widows often were greatly impoverished and in need of help. The neglect of such needy ones would have been a heartless act and thus impure and defiling. (1:27)

For believers to keep themselves spotless from the world required that they refrain from conducting themselves like people of the world who are in a state of alienation from God. An uncaring and selfish spirit has no place among those whom God approves. To remain unsullied by the corruption of the world, believers must strive to imitate the love of their heavenly Father and his Son. This is not just a matter of refraining from hurtful acts. It involves actively doing what one can to respond kindly and compassionately to others, especially to those in need. (1:27)

Notes:

In verse 1, a number of manuscripts add “Father” after “God.”

In verse 10, the rich person is not specifically identified as a “brother.” So while the boasting or glorying about the humiliation would particularly fit a wealthy believer, the points then made about the perishing of the rich man like a beautiful blossom can apply to all those having abundant possessions.

Later manuscripts (in verse 12) add either “Lord” or “God” to identify the one who has promised.

For the concluding phrase of verse 17, the readings of manuscripts vary. A literal rendering of what is commonly regarded as the better manuscript reading would be, “with whom there is no variation or a shadow of turning.” This could mean that, with God, there is no variation or a shadow (or darkening) that is caused by turning or by a change. The text of fourth-century Codex Vaticanus could be interpreted to mean that, with God, there is “no variation that stems from the turning of a shadow.” Translators have variously rendered the phrase (“with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” [NRSV]; “with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change” [NAB]; “there is no variation, no play of passing shadows” [REB]).

The opening expression in verse 19 varies in manuscripts. Many later manuscripts read hóste (“therefore”), whereas fourth-century Codex Vaticanus and numerous other manuscripts say íste (“know”), which is both the second person plural indicative or imperative form of the verb oida. Depending on which Greek text they followed or whether they considered the verb for “know” to be either indicative or imperative, translators have varied in their renderings.

J. B. Phillips interpretively paraphrased the passage in keeping with the reading “therefore.” “In view of what he has made us then, dear brothers, let every man be quick to listen but slow to use his tongue, and slow to lose his temper.”

Translators who considered the verb for “know” to be an imperative have added an object (often the word “this”), as there is none in the Greek text. “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (NIV) “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” (NRSV) “Remember this, my dear brothers: everyone should be quick to listen but slow to speak and slow to human anger.” (NJB)

In The Revised English Bible, the thought of “knowing” is linked to the previous verse, indicating that believers can be certain of what God has done in bringing them to birth by the word of truth to be a kind of firstfruits. “Of that you may be certain, my dear friends. But everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to be angry.”

Part of the directive in verse 19 is found in Sirach 5:11(13), “Be quick in hearing, and with patience express a reply.” Admonition to control one’s speaking and temper is also found in the book of Proverbs. “He who controls his lips has insight.” (Proverbs 10:19) “A quick-tempered man acts foolishly.” (Proverbs 14:17)

In verse 26, many later manuscripts add “among you” in relation to the one considering himself to be pious.