An Exposition of James 1

Virtus E. Gideon  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 29 - Fall 1986

Relating Christianity and Life

Our current interest in the Epistle of James may stem from some scholars’ difficulties with the epistle. Some of these difficulties kept the letter from initial admission into the New Testament canon.

This brief document stresses the nature of faith, faith’s achievements, and how faith reveals itself in works. Luther referred to this writing as an “epistle full of straw” because “it has nothing of the nature of the gospel in it.”[1]Works of Martin Luther, trans. Paul Zeller Strodach, vol. 6 (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company and Castle Press, 1915), p. 444. The Reformer further felt that the epistle contradicted the remainder of the New Testament by ascribing justification to works. Thus, in his thinking and evaluation the document seemed to contradict the thought of Paul. Moreover, the absence of teachings concerning the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, as well as any word relative to the Holy Spirit, caused Luther to relegate the book to a place of secondary importance. He felt that James had sought by law what the apostles had conceived of as occurring by faith. Noting these contrasts and having appraised the document by these tests, Luther nonetheless indicated that his failure to include it among “the proper chief books” in no way militated against others exalting it as they pleased, “For there is many a good saying in it.”[2]Ibid.

James discussed trials and temptations, the rich and poor, and hearing and doing in chapter one. These words, as indicated in the introductory article, are addressed to Christians, a spiritual Israel composed of both Jewish and Gentile believers scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The homiletical nature of the epistle is seen readily in its commonality with the style of the Greek peripatetic philosophers. They often engaged in pretended conversations with imagined adversaries, effecting transition from one subject to another by means of a question. Their style was characterized by rhetorical questions, personifications of sins and virtues, vivid illustrations from everyday life, employment of the experiences of famous and well-known people to drive home their points, the frequent usage of paradox, and a harshness and sternness which also became a trademark.[3]William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter in Daily Bible Study Series (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), pp. 32-34, provides a concise but helpful description of the preaching of Greek peripatetic philosophers. Cf. also James Hardy Ropes, The Epistle of St. James in International Critical Commentary, eds. Samuel Rolles Driver, Alfred Plummer, and Charles Augustus Briggs  (Edinburg: T. & T. Clark, 1916), pp. 10-14 for a detailed discussion of diatribe. The usage of almost sixty imperatives delineates the ethical nature of the epistle. James saw Christianity as a religion to be lived, not merely accepted.

Living With Trials

Chapter one is unified by James’s denunciation of religious shams and his emphasis upon religious realities. James began this chapter with the omission of any expression of gratitude for his readers or reference to a possible past association with them.

James addressed the question of trials in a startling manner—by commanding the reader ”to count it all joy” when facing trial, a paradox indeed! Observe that James instructed the reader to count it all joy when facing trial, that is, count trial as an occasion of joy. The aorist tense of the imperative verb translated “count it all joy” suggested a decisiveness of action, an instantaneous joyous response in the midst of trial. The adjective “all” is used intensively and could be translated “full,” “unmixed,” “nothing but joy,” or “supreme.” The Greek term translated “trial” (v. 2) is a term which may be translated ”trial” or ”temptation,” having the sense of outward trials or inward temptations. Secular writers used the word of an immature bird testing its wings. The context must determine whether the term means outward trial or inward temptation. Here the word should be translated “trial” while later in the chapter (v. 13) it is better translated “temptation.” The verb (peripesete) means literally “to fall around.”

The picture is of being surrounded by trials, which are described as being “various” trials. These trials may be numerous and likely will occur in the lives of most Christians. The term translated “various” suggests the multi-faceted nature of the trials, the word meaning “multi-natured” or “multi­colored.”

Perhaps your grandmother did embroidery work. If so, she must have employed frequently a particular embroidery thread described as variegated thread, a multi-colored thread in which one pastel color fades into another. The pastel blue fades into the pastel pink, which fades into pastel yellow, then into green, and thus it runs the gamut of colors.

Trials are described as multi-colored, of various natures, but each of them is nonetheless a trial. When these trials come, Christians are to see them as occasions for “unmixed joy.” “When,” one simple little word introducing the subject, reveals that trials are certain to come to our lives as Christians. To list just a few: crises in personal health and the health of family members, the possibility of financial failures, disturbing problems in personal relationships, disappointments, unexpected crises. Is there need to list additional trials of such varied natures?

James moved from this strange concept of trial as an occasion of joy to suggest an equally bold conception—that trials and testing effect a result. The testing of faith produces a proven character. Though the Christian does not necessarily appreciate or enjoy trials, he does value that which follows. This testing, according to James, brings patience (hupomone), the Greek word meaning literally “to remain under, to remain beneath the load.” The term is composed of two Greek words: hupo, a preposition meaning “under,” or “beneath,” and mane, a term related to a verb meaning “to remain.” Consequently, the picture is of one remaining beneath a load of burdens, just as a soldier remains beneath the burden of his heavy pack. Jesus’ followers develop “staying power” by facing opposition. The ultimate result of steadfastness in the face of trials is the development of additional Christian qualities, resulting in maturity and balance. Too often the Christian is prone to neglect certain areas of development as being nonessential, but James stated that we are never to “sell out” to any sin or shortcoming. To hold the standard of Christ before one’s eyes is the goal of perfection as established in the New Testament (cf. Paul’s idea in Philippians 2). This is to be “perfect and entire, wanting nothing.”

Steadfastness is to result in its perfect work, a maturing of those qualities which bring a completeness of character. The term “perfect” (teleios) means to be complete in the sense of being “finished” while “complete” (holoklepos) means “to be complete in all of its parts.”[4]Cf. Ropes, p. 138, for a helpful distinction between these two Greek words.

Wisdom for Life

Every person needs wisdom but surely no one requires wisdom more desperately than a Christian facing   trials.   Many   questions plague his mind creating doubts, fears, and uncertainties. Why has this difficulty come into my life? How should I react? Why do my friends not face this same problem? Does God not love me? What have I done to deserve this? Is this problem justified? Why are others not “punished”? “God, please tell me!” “Why?” “If you will only explain this, I can accept it more gracefully.”

This wisdom of which James wrote is not a mere accumulation or marshalling of facts but is totally different from a collection of ideas and concepts. Wisdom, a spiritual insight given by God, rather, enables a believer to know and practice righteousness, thus avoiding pitfalls which inevitably capture the sensual and self-directed individual. God generously provides this wisdom, not in the spirit of a man who wearies of being asked repetitiously for gifts and ultimately refuses to give more, but in His love He neither bargains with the seeker nor chides him because of his request. He is not as a banker who habitually demands of the client wishing to borrow money, “Can you not manage your needs with only one-half of that amount? That is a great sum of money, you know.”

The Christian is to seek God’s aid in this matter as he prays for God’s strength and blessings. But this prayer must be founded in faith. Employing his forceful but simple style, James compared the life lacking faith to the water being tossed to and fro by the wind. The faithless life lacks tranquility and stability. Moreover, this wavering in faith affects the person’s entire relationship to God. “The just shall live by faith” is a foundational statement describing the entire scope of the Christian’s life. To question God is to result in harboring fear and frustration; to believe Him is to direct life to His purpose. The term “double-minded” describes a person who attempts to face two ways simultaneously, an utter impossibility. God expects His child to relax in a faith relationship with Him. God wishes to add blessing after blessing to His own, who will likewise find that trials temper life and wisdom assists in opening the doors which lead to victory.

The double-minded person, an expression literally describing “a double-souled man,”[5]Literal translation of the Greek term. is an individual who has his soul divided between the world and faith, or an individual who is attempting to look two directions simultaneously. Ropes identifies him as “Mr. Facing-both-ways.”[6]Ropes, p. 143. This term does not appear in secular literature and appears only twice in the New Testament, here and in James 4:8. Early Christian writers used the term frequently, and the idea seems to have been the concept of being “at variance,” “being in doubt,” or being “undecided.” Such a person is unstable or fickle. James explained that this individual’s conduct corresponds to his attitude toward faith. To be undecided concerning the relative values of the divine and secular obviously is to be spiritually immature. Only with full acceptance of God’s will and purpose in life can the Christian approach the goals which God has established for him. To follow God’s priorities is to be and to do what is of greatest value in life.

Poverty and Wealth

The Christian is commanded by James (9-11) to find joy in his relationship to Christ regardless of the nature and character of his trials. Following his graphic but brief description of the instability of a double-minded man, James addressed the readers of various economic levels. The majority of them likely were quite poor, while only a few were wealthy. The economically poor certainly faced innumerable trials occasioned and created by their poverty, as is true of those who suffer in poverty conditions today. The Septuagint employed the term tapeinos (“lowly”) to describe both the materialistically poor and the spiritually poor. However, God has made it possible for those materially poor to be spiritually rich. This paradoxical statement is merely one of many such paradoxes found in the New Testament. For example, recall especially the teachings of Jesus concerning greatness through service, freedom through slavery, and finding life through losing it. This poverty-stricken believer is to glory in his “height.” Yet, he never must lose sight of the fact that this exaltation is set in the context of earthly trials. Perhaps he is disinclined to look beyond his present condition created by the poverty which is so much a part of his daily life. James emphatically stressed that trials bring with them a certain testing and difficulty, thereby developing a strong moral character on the part of the individual who accepts these experiences as counseled by the author in verses 2-3. The poor man must place life, trials, and value of each in proper perspective.

The paradoxical nature of the previous statement continues in verse 10 as James rehearsed the humiliation of the wealthy. The rich man should exult in the fact that Jesus had taught him a new evaluation of spiritual values. This evaluation comprehends the true place of materialism and the realization that spiritual values alone are eternal. The wealthy must never conclude that God contributes no pluses to life or that life is perfect just because one is wealthy and seemingly self-sufficient. James’s illustration of the fragility of materialism is commonplace so that his readers would quickly grasp the point.

Calling attention to the grass which withers during the long hot months and the subsequent perishing of its once beautiful flowers, he descriptively portrayed the sudden alteration of wealth. He then reminded his readers of the burning heat (the term kauson was used for the southeast wind, the sirocco) often discussed by Jesus’ contemporaries (cf. Luke 12:55), and the writer subsequently declared that the rich man will also fade away in his pursuits even as does the grass. In the midst of one of his business trips, for example, his experiences may prove that he is no more immune to suffering than is the poor man.

Observe that both of these individuals were Christian, the first being described as a brother, while the grammatical structure seems to indicate that the latter is also a Christian, though some scholars identify him as a non-Christian.[7]Peter Davids, The Epistle of James in New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), pp. 76-77. Regardless of his identity, James expected the reader to perceive that the truly wealthy man is the person enjoying his relationship in Christ, who lifted him above his poverty into a dynamic personal relationship with his Savior. Therefore, he has a well-founded reason to glory as does the rich man who also has come to see his true occasion for glorying. A well-known ethicist effectively summarized the writer’s ethical teaching concerning poverty and plenty.

Riches may bring special status in this world’s clubs but in the church, bought by the blood of Jesus Christ, everybody is somebody.[8]Foy Valentine, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter in Layman’s Bible Book Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1981), p. 82.

The Blessedness Derived From Trial and Temptation

The rich and poor brothers alike will be forced to cope with temptation and trial though their trials may take different forms. James reminded all of his readers that a blessing comes from enduring trial. The term “blessed” could be translated “happy,” “happy spiritually,” “fortunate,” or “oh, the reward of the life of the man who endures trial.” The “blessed” person has discovered the secret of happiness in life. The New Testament writers often employed the word to describe the hungry, the poor, and even those who are persecuted.[9]Cf. Matt. 5:3, 6, 11; Luke 6:20, 22.

Endurance is the same spiritual quality as defined in verses 2-3, the endurance with steadfastness. The meaning of the term is depicted in the stead­ fastness of the stouthearted soldier who remains beneath his heavy pack throughout the heat of the long day. The present tense of bupomenei expresses the idea of a continuous act of enduring. James explained the receiving of the reward of “the crown of life” as a resultant blessing once the testing has been completed. The word translated “testing” was used in the secular world to describe the testing of metals. James had in mind the courageous enduring of trials.[10]Curtis Vaughan, James: A Study Guide (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969), pp. 27-28. God then, having determined the individual to be faithful and stead­fast in affliction, will give (future tense) the crown (stepbanos usually defines a victor’s crown or wreath) of life to the saint. However, “crown” was one of Paul’s favorite words to define divine approval. The crown consists of life itself (a genitive of apposition).[11]Curtis Vaughan and Virtus Gideon, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1979), p. 32. Therefore, God’s child who endures trial will receive a “badge” of approval from God, a crown consisting of life. This life is not a mere biological existence but rather is life in its fullest.[12]The Greek term is dzoe not bios, the term related to the English word “biological.” James intended his readers to know that life’s trials were not necessarily detrimental in the end but that trials produced a desirable effect. All Christians face trials—the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the healthy and the unhealthy, the educated and the uneducated—but God proceeds to bring blessedness out of these stressful and distasteful experiences. Compare this truth with that of Rom. 8:28.

Understanding Temptation

After having discussed those Christians who endure trials and God’s rewarding of them, James then turned to the question of temptation. A stern warning follows. That some of the early Christians sought an excuse for their own sinfulness is obvious from the strong statement of verse 13. Some of James’s readers may have attempted to blame their sins upon God, claiming that he had tempted them to do evil. To place blame upon someone else is always a desirable way to escape personal responsibility. Even while being tempted, no man is to suggest repetitiously (present tense verb) that God produces or brings the temptation into his life.

As earlier discussed, the word peirasmos refers in verse 2 to a mere trial, but here the term refers to temptation with an evil intent. The writer is not thinking only in terms of a religious persecution which results in the subsequent temptation to renounce Christ. He seemingly has routine temptation in mind.[13]Ropes, p. 153.

In the midst of battling various temptations and perhaps on the verge of yielding to one or more of them, the readers may have been prone to have blamed God for their temptations and subsequent sins. That man habitually seeks an individual to blame for his own mistakes is only natural. Some men attempt to justify their licentiousness by explaining that it is really God’s fault because he made them as they are, that is, capable of sinning and desirous of yielding to temptation. Although the Bible is replete with accounts of God’s permitting man to be tried, as for example, in the cases of Abraham and Job, He nowhere is identified as the One who tempts men to do evil. Tasker summarized the idea well when he wrote, ”What James is here denying is not that God tries men, but that He tries them with evil intent and so tempts them to sin.”[14]R. V. G. Tusker, The General Epistle of James in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959), p. 46. God’s nature makes it impossible for Him to tempt any person. James employed an intensive construction meaning God Himself tempts (present tense) no man.

James then explained how man is tempted, placing the responsibility for temptation at man’s feet, not God’s. That James did not identify the devil as the tempter in no way negates the fact that Satan is the source of evil. His point was to declare that God absolutely never invites man to sin but that man himself must bear the responsibility for his sin. Perhaps James referred to some who believed that God must also bring temptation if he permits man to be tried. The phrase “each person” suggests the universal nature of temptation. Every person experiences temptation. The present tense verb translated “is tempted” presupposes that temptation comes repeatedly to each person.[15]Cf. Vaughan and Gideon, pp. 136-38 for a discussion of the intricate meanings of the present tense.

This is the way temptation occurs. Man’s own lusts become the springboard for temptation. He is lured and enticed by his own passions. “Lusts” (passions) is a strong word (in the New Testament), and writers often employed the term in a bad sense. In 1 John 2:15 the terms translated “lures” and “entices” were used in the secular literature of the day to refer to the activity of the hunter or fisherman who employed bait to entice his victim to his net or hook. These are words referring to the same process of spiritual downfall. But temptation itself is not sin. Sin results when lust embraces the forbidden thing.

Desired—sin—death—this is the procedure described by James. Lust, having its way, brings sin, and sin brings death. Employing the language of childbirth, James vividly disclosed the process of sin’s emergence as a specific expression of violation of God’s will. When lust conceives,[16]The term conceive is a compound word in Greek, composed of a preposition “sun” (with) and lambani5 (to take), thus meaning to receive with, to unite with as descriptive of the beginning of life. that is, when lust has reacted to its acceptance by the individual’s will, it brings forth sin, and when sin is finished, it brings forth death.

The term “death” was used to designate separation from God. Before sin expresses itself in an overt act, it is lodged as an attitude of the heart. Moreover, regardless of the attractiveness of sin’s lure and appeal, the ultimate end of sin is death itself. James interestingly described the completion, the maturing, or the perfect work of sin as death. Observe the difference between this woeful state and the condition of happiness (v. 12) which belongs to the person who endures trial.

The Source of All Good Things

James then directed his attention to God’s true concern for humanity in contrast to the suggestion that he tempts men. Instead of tempting and enticing men to do evil acts, he blesses them with good gifts. Only good comes from God. The profound significance of this truth is seen in the nature of the appeal which James made to his readers. To grasp the nature of God and to know that He desires the best for humanity assists one in dealing with the source of temptation. James declared that God is the source of every good thing. A present imperative, preceded by the negative me and accurately translated “stop being deceived,”[17]Cf. Vaughan and Gideon, pp.   106-7. introduces this thought. God does not lure people toward evil, nor does He rejoice in their defeats. He rather does just the opposite, even providing each good gift which they enjoy. James’s personal interest in and concern for his readers were expressed in the warmth of the direct address, “my beloved brethren.”

James used two words to describe God’s gifts (v. 17). The first term dosis ordinarily refers to the act of giving; the latter term dorema defines the thing which is given.[18]Ropes, pp. 158-59. Many interpreters seem to view them as synonyms used here for rhetorical purposes. Whether or not this is an accurate comprehension, the writer of this epistle insisted that every good gift has its common source—God. Therefore, all kinds and degrees of good have their common source in God. “Good,” placed in sharp contrast to the “temptation,” comes to man because of God’s desire or initiative. James argued that God wishes the best for his people and bestows good gifts upon them rather than designing their downfall by bringing deceptiveness and temptation, thereby enticing them to do evil.

God’s gifts are perfect because they come from the “Father of lights,” a descriptive phrase disclosing the nature of God. God created the heavenly luminaries, but with God there is no “variableness or shadow of turning” as in the case of the heavenly lights. The Greek word translated “is” (estin) implies that there is no possibility of such a change in God. The sun provides varying degrees of light to the earth as is seen by comparing the dawn, the noontime, and the twilight. But God reveals no such variation, either in love or in His gifts to men, always desiring the unquestioned best for His people.

The expression “shadow of turning” likely refers to the positional relationships between the earth and the luminaries. Movements of the luminaries cause the shadows to appear. However, there are no risings, settings, or eclipses with God, neither with His goodness, nor with His gifts. God’s character, including His holiness and His love, is always the same, unlike the light of the heavenly luminaries which He created. He is constant; He is changeless.[19]For a discussion of the textual problem of verse 16, see Davids, pp. 77-78.

The immutable God gives innumerable gifts to His children, but the greatest gift is the new birth. No one forced God to bring spiritual life to us, but He has begotten us of His own will. The expression “brought us forth” translates a Greek verb which in verse 15 means “to give birth.” He has chosen us, not because of our merit, but because of His eternal purpose. The term translated “will” (boulomat) refers to a will guided by choice and purpose.[20]Cf. Gottlob Schrenk, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1st ed., ed. Gerhard Kittel   (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), pp. 629-37. To understand the meaning of this word is to grasp the impossibility of God’s tempting us to do evil. James described us Christians as a “certain first fruit of his creation,” a description likely pointing to a greater harvest to come.[21]Cf. Exod. 22:29; Lev. 2:12; Num. 18:12; Deut. 18:4; 26:2 for selected Old Testament references to firstfruits. The term “certain” (tina) indicates that the expression is figurative.[22]Ropes, p. 167. The picture is of God’s bringing us forth in the new birth and then assisting us as we grow and mature spiritually.

Some interpreters understand the term “first fruit” to refer to Jews as opposed to Gentiles, but the epistle seems to be addressed to all Christians. In the Old Testament the first fruits given to God were sacred (note Lev. 23:10; Jer. 2:3), and Israel was the first fruits of His increase. James naturally employed this term to describe the New Testament saints. Christians have been made God’s by a word of truth, the word bringing the gospel to them. Consequently, God’s people belong to Him, honor Him, and constitute the evidence of God’s promise of a great harvest coming in God’s own time. God’s people are to live out His demands and reveal His love and holiness. As a result, God works in the experiences of His people that they may honor Him with their lives.

Hearing and Doing

The chapter’s strongly ethical content surfaces again, demanding attention. James defined the application of this ethical message in the simplest possible terminology and on an intensely personal level. Observe the straightforwardness in the instructions which he offered concerning the Christian’s stance during trials. James revealed that the reader has a resource to use during the most difficult occasions. That source of strength and assistance is God’s teaching, His Word, or perhaps as we would express it, the Bible.[23]Harold L. Bryson, in his practical work on James, How Faith Works (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985), entitled the chapter dealing with James 1:19-27, Using the Bible Correctly.” Note particularly pp. 40-49 for a thought-provoking discussion of this segment of the document. The term translated “know” is best considered an imperative, the expression therefore carrying the force and authority of a command. Recognizing the readers as his Christian brothers somewhat softened the command of James.[24]See Davids, pp. 91-92, for a discussion of the textual problem of this verse. The following instructions depict the Christian in his attitude and reaction during the time of trials, as well as in every experience of life. James warned his readers concerning carelessness in speaking or hearing.

Perhaps trials offer an ideal situation in which Christians may conduct themselves carelessly, thus producing even additional problems and hurt, both for themselves and those surrounding them. These warnings have been interpreted by some scholars as though they refer to God’s messengers, suggesting that they are to be certain that they possess God’s message before speaking. In other words, give God an ample opportunity to communicate His message to you before attempting to share it. If this is an accurate interpretation, the further warning against anger possibly refers to unfair or unjust criticism directed toward the messenger. However, in the context of life’s difficulties, other interpreters suggest that this is a reference to ordinary speech and situations which would bring an immediate angry response to the circumstances.

Instead of being swift to speak, just the opposite is commanded. Christians are to be “slow to speak,” “swift to hear,” and “slow to wrath.” To listen to God means that one’s mind is open to His Word and not embittered by resentment and anger. Anger affects one and dramatically influences behavior, making it impossible to conduct one’s life as God wishes. The word orge (anger) suggests a persistent dislike of an individual and an ugly, hostile attitude toward the person. This spirit precludes the doing of the will of God within the heart. An angry spirit prevents the righteousness of God from revealing itself in life’s activities. The term translated “produce” may be understood literally in the sense of “doing,” “practicing,” “bringing about,” or “working.” To observe that trials make some people into spiritual giants and seemingly destroy others is an obviously discernible truth drawn from daily observations of how people “live” life.

Activity not Passivity

The terse chapter draws to a conclusion with several pointed instructions and illustrations. Numerous translators regard verse 21 as the concluding statement of the directions of the two previous verses. Others regard it as a transitional sentence. The usage of the conjunctive particle “therefore” in the New Testament consistently implies that the following idea or instruction is built upon the preceding facts. Compare its usage in Rom. 12:1. The reader is commanded “to put aside” filthiness and wickedness. The term translated “put aside,” an aorist imperative,[25]This tense describes a decisive action. at times refers to the removal of dirt from the body, but its normal New Testament usage is illustrated vividly by the removal of clothing, literally “stripping off” one’s clothing.[26]Cf. Heb. 12:1 for the figure of laying something aside. “Filthiness” includes all evil habits and tendencies, rudeness in every respect. But not only are dishonorable acts to be removed as one would strip a robe from his body, the abundance of wickedness must also be stripped from one’s life. The idea is the removal of the remainder of disgraceful and evil habits, any evil attitude or act which clings to us must also be denounced. This figure reminds us that regeneration is not merely for a moment but for a lifetime.

Having placed these evils aside, we are to receive[27]This verb is also an aorist imperative, thereby stressing a decisiveness of action. The term dechomai means “to welcome.” Luke used it to describe the Bereans’ reception of the word (Acts 17:11). Cf. also 1 Thess. 2:13. the implanted word. Although this implanted word has been identified by some interpreters as man’s conscience, to interpret the expression as defining the word which is planted in our hearts is preferable. The word of the gospel is deeply rooted within the Christian’s heart. A believer is to receive this word with meekness, humility, and modesty. The biblical term “meekness” refers to a total subjection to God’s purpose, a willingness to learn from God, a controlled strength, and not to a stark timidity or indecisiveness.

James qualified the word as being “able to save your souls.” The term “salvation” appears in 2:14; 4:12; and 5:20. Some admittedly view these as references to “full salvation,” a delivering from sin and a bringing to perfection. However, the images in 4:12 and 5:20 seem to refer to salvation as deliverance from death at the judgment. The soul, which never dies, will fellowship eternally with God.[28]Note A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1933), 6 vols., 6:22.

Employing a positive command, the writer then underscored the fact that Christians are not merely to hear the word but are to “do” it, to practice its teachings. A “doer” is a “maker”; the term “doer” itself designates the activism involved in doing the word. Hearers were akroatai, a word describing those who simply listened to speeches but never actually became followers of the teacher or devotees of the material taught. To hear the word taught or preached is one thing; to abide by its teachings so that one becomes a doer is something of an entirely different quality. The one who does not act upon the basis of what he has heard deceives himself. The Greek word paralogidzomai occurs here and in Col. 2:4, where Paul employed the word to mean to lead one astray from the faith. To deceive oneself is to wrong and defraud oneself. A first class conditional statement introduces verse 23 and could be translated “since one is a hearer. . . .” ”A hearer who hears” but does not “do” is comparable to an individual viewing his countenance in a mirror and subsequently forgetting what he beheld. What the metal mirror reflects of disheveled hair or twisted tie is valuable only if the man then combs his hair and straightens his tie. But if he does not do so, the mirror is of little value to him. The same result is true of hearing God’s word. Unless the person acts upon what he hears, the word is of little value to him. The evidences of need brought by the sins of life are valueless unless the person is aware of their presence and reacts accordingly. Turning from the mirror of God’s word, the man walks away and forgets the character of the person he saw reflected.

James exposed the opposite side of the coin in verse 25 by emphasizing the blessedness that comes in being a “doer” of the word. “Looks into” translates an aorist participle formed on a root meaning “to peer into,” “to look into intently.” John used this Greek term (John 20:5, 11) to describe Peter’s peering into Jesus’ tomb and also to reveal Mary’s intense gaze into the tomb where Jesus’ body had lain. Peter employed the word to describe the desire of the prophets to see more of God’s actions in behalf of His people (1 Pet. 1:12). James observed that the law of liberty is perfect and that the doer perseveres in this law. A “doer” simply does not gaze upon the law, he “lives” in the teachings and directions defined by the law. Although a Jew would recognize that the law is perfect (Ps. 19:7), James must have meant more than the Old Testament law by his reference here, using the phrase “the perfect law” to mean the will of God as exhibited in the life and teaching of Jesus. This description of the perfect law stood in sharp contrast to the scribal interpretations of the Old Testament so prevalent in his day.

The perfect law is defined as a law of liberty because the person following its teaching finds freedom. James alone uses this expression, repeating it again in 2:12. Therefore, the Christian does not live by a legalism imposed upon him from without but by a spiritual power within his heart. Jeremiah had prophesied centuries earlier of God’s intention to record his law within the heart of man (Jer. 31:31-34). A Christian accordingly finds blessedness in living in the teachings of this perfect law exemplified in and interpreted by Jesus’ life. The Holy Spirit sensitizes the believer to the deeper concepts of this law and empowers him with the ability to live in its teachings, thereby producing a liberty and freedom otherwise impossible.

These last two verses of the chapter provide two illustrations of doing the word, forming something of a summary of verses 1-25 and a transition between this segment and the following chapter. James concluded that ceremonial observances and “pious” attitudes are woefully inadequate as evidences of genuine commitment to Christ, underscoring the “emptiness” and “vanity” of such professions. Such conduct deceives self and perhaps others, but not God. The Greek terms translated “religious” and “religion” actually refer to various public expressions such as worship, praying, fasting, and almsgiving. Note that all of these are outward, ritualistic acts standing in sharp contrast to the inward aspects of worship. James illustrated the deficiency of these outward expressions by alluding to the case of the person who does not bridle the tongue, though performing numerous “religious” acts. These performances avail nothing; in fact, they readily reveal the emptiness and vanity of life.

Verse 27 constitutes a positive religious expression, whereas verse 26 describes a negative and worthless religious activity. James referred to this religious activity as one that is pure and undefiled. The Pharisees magnified religious purity, separated themselves from Gentiles, even withdrew from Jews who were ceremonially unclean, abstained from certain foods, and refrained from idol worship, for example. But religion that is truly pure and undefiled in God’s presence is defined and expressed differently. This verse does not necessarily define religion, but it is a statement of how genuine religion manifests itself in practical activities.

Viewing religion from God’s perspective, James said that pure religion (the positive description) and undefiled (the negative description) proclaims itself in visiting orphans and widows. The Greek word translated “to visit” includes the ideas of “inspecting” and “seeing” as though the concept is that of meeting needs that are observed. “To visit” then suggests more than a social visit; the term itself denotes a meeting of the needs of the individual. The present tense defines a continuous action in the responsibility of alleviating the needs of these individuals. These burdens may involve physical requirements such as food or clothing, or they may be identified as emotional or spiritual needs.

James’s statement involves the allaying of hurts, whatever the nature of those needs is. Therefore, religious faith reveals itself in life. James gave a final illustration—the Christian is to “keep himself unspotted from the world.” He is to be spotless, unspecked![29]Robertson, pp. 25-26. The word translated “keep” is a present infinitive and could well be translated “to continue keeping” himself unspotted from the world, “world” identifying the world of men alienated from God and ruled by Satan. Thus, “world” is a synonym for evil. Consequently, the Christian is to preserve himself from all evil and its influences.

Religion to some people may be ritualistic and creedal in nature, but James declared Christianity to be internal, relational, and “lived” in life. James insisted that the Christian must permit the values of Christianity to permeate all of life, especially in the following areas reflected in James 1: living with trials, seeking God’s wisdom for human experiences, coping with the multi-faceted tensions created by poverty or wealth, understanding temptation, comprehending the source of life’s blessings, and reacting to the teaching of God, not to the whims of men. James, in this introductory chapter to an intensely practical epistle, declared that a follower of Christ has a lifestyle which sets him apart from the conduct of the world.


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