From: A Torah Commentary on James 1-2 Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2014
Overview: How the Themes are Developed
ATP text: 1 James, a bondservant of both God and the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered throughout the civilized world: Greetings!
Development of the argument:
Traditionalist Jews spoke in terms of serving God; Christian Jews certainly embraced this as well. But to them, since Jesus had come as the long promised Messiah, the commitment now had to be dual—hence “a bondservant of [AT: of both] God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” It wasn’t a matter of choosing between them, but of fully embracing both.
[Page 208] Among other things, this double fealty recognized that Jesus’ regal powers had been bestowed upon Him, willingly and ungrudgingly, by the Father: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand” (John 3:35). “For ‘He has put all things under His feet.’ But when He says ‘all things are put under Him,’ it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted” (1 Corinthians 15:27).
Since the same “slave” status is claimed in relationship to both, it is easy to read the text as carrying the implicit “freight” of saying that they are both of an “equality” of nature. How else could one be equally a slave of both, when the uniqueness of the Father would otherwise put that master-servant relationship on a vastly superior level in regard to reverence, obedience, and everything else?
In other words we may well have here an implicit overtone of the deityship of Jesus; a “glimmer,” a hint of that which is made explicit in other New Testament texts. If one prefers a relatively late dating for the epistle, what we have here may well be an allusion backward to a truth so deeply accepted that only a passing reference would be necessary for it to come to the readers’ minds. On the other hand, if one embraces a very early date, it would recognize how easily early disciples embraced rhetoric that would make that view quite natural. It led to it as straight as an arrow flies.
Indeed, the text can be validly translated as “servant of Jesus Christ, God and Lord,” which would make it explicit. Since a powerful direct Christological assertion was not needed--since Jesus’ status is not an issue in the epistle--and since a (predominantly) Jewish audience might well feel more comfortable with leaving a certain verbal ambiguity, it seems inherently probable that the introduction was intended to be read in the way traditionally translated.
[Page 209] The author’s description of himself as a “slave” of God and Christ—and implicitly, in behalf of serving his readers’ needs—carries much theological freight through the choice of that word to describe the relationship. It leaves no doubt as to who is in charge and who is the one following orders. “It emphasizes the qualities of obedience, loyalty, and service that mark the relationship.”
He does not identify himself beyond the vague “a bondservant,” clearly relying upon his recipients knowing full well the identity of who was writing and why he would be concerned about them. He is a man who had credibility not only in one geographic region but whose reputation had become generally know and accepted: note that he does not have to argue why it should be accepted by Jewish believers throughout the known world. They already knew.
The author’s targeted audience is Jewish believers, as evidenced by their designation of belonging “to the twelve tribes which are scattered about” and the lack of anything Gentile specific in the letter. This description of them is standard ethnic terminology of the time to describe those Jews living outside of what later generations called geographic Palestine.
We generally think in terms of the epistle being sent throughout the Roman world. However Persia was a major empire in its own right and relationship between the two empires was always skittish. Within the Parthian Empire, however, was a major Jewish [Page 210] community and it received sporadic communications from the religious authorities of the Temple. Assuming that there were Christians there by the time this epistle was written--and Parthians were present at Pentecost, Acts 2:9--it reasonably follows that it was sent there as well. The designated recipients (“twelve tribes which are scattered abroad,” 1:1) would have required it.
The self-designation as “bondservant” or “slave” is a strange self-designation for modern, non-slave holding societies. To call one such is virtual self-denigration and insult.
But in a society in which the vast bulk of the population were slaves, part of your status surely came from whose slave you were. Once one acknowledges—as all scholars seem to do—that Rome was a status obsessed society, such could hardly have avoided happening. However, obnoxious Roman senators (for example) undoubtedly were, it is unlikely that any slave avoided claiming a kind of “second hand glory and honor” from his status. Others were servants of nobodies; they were slaves of the highest of the elite.
When James instructs others and identifies himself as slave of God and Christ, he is—in effect—presenting himself as speaking on their behalf. He needs to be heard for that reason, if for no other. He may personally have authority or he may not; what is unquestionable is those he is speaking on behalf of do possess it.
This authority as representative of the Divine is implicit in chapter 3’s admonition “let not many of you become teachers” (verse 1). Yet he is doing exactly that. Would he have been willing to be one of that number without such a confidence? At the very least, it has to imply his complete and passionate conviction that whatever he has written is undeniably true.
[Page 211] Indeed, the entirety of what he writes is presented as certainty, as unquestionable, as absolutely reliable. There is no hedging of his insights. “As Demetrius puts it: the tone of the discourse is not that of a friendly letter; this is an ex cathedra address.”
Aside: If this book comes from a pseudonymous author--wishing to be received as authoritative though he has no objective grounds on which to claim such—the authority point would surely have been driven home far more explicitly and emphatically. It would not merely be an understated “James” but “James” with the clearest spelling out of which James who was known to have such teaching authority. Quite possibly, with an explicit assertion of the authority itself as well.
The lack of such argues strongly that the readers were well aware of who this James was and that James was secure enough in the authority that he did have that he felt no need to “pound them over the head” with it. Hence the very restraint in “power assertions” seems a significant argument against the work coming from someone pretending to be an authoritative person he really is not.
Premise of the Entire Work:
The Tests of Our Faith Can Better Us
The Principle Laid Down
ATP text: 2 My comrades in the faith, consider it unmitigated joy
when you face the various difficulties of life 3 because you know that such
testing of your commitment produces strength to endure whatever happens
in the future. 4 Let endurance be fully developed so that you may be totally
mature and complete, lacking nothing.
Development of the argument:
After a brief identification of authorship and destination (1:1), the author jumps into the underlying them of the book (1:2-4). This is the need to endure the “trials [ATP: difficulties of life]” (1:2) that are the “testing of your faith [ATP: commitment]” (1:3). The attitude to have in facing these things is not despair but “joy.” That doesn’t mean you are enthused about yet another intense difficulty to deal with. You aren’t joyous because you face difficulty; you are joyous in spite of facing difficulty.
You aren’t even going to permit harsh circumstances to alter your fundamental, upbeat attitude in serving Christ. The intended idea would surely be something alone the line of that produced by these two interpretive additions to the NKJV, “Count it all joy even when you fall into various trails” or “count it all joy in spite of falling into various trials.” And the reason you can encounter such problems with a positive attitude is that, ironic as it may sound, it will actually produce good for you in spite of the pain and discomfort (verses 3-4).
[Page 213] Many theorize that James has in mind by “trials” and “testing,” the persecution of believers but the expression “various trials” (“trials of any kind,” NRSV; “all kinds of trials,” TEV; “tests of every sort,” BBE; “various difficulties of life,” ATP) argues for “a much broader setting” that includes all the forms of adversity that may come upon the Christian, from whatever source.
Scot McKnight, has observed that, “Various options have been offered by the church’s many commentators, including daily trials such as food shortage, being laid off, or a fire in the home, internal trials in the sense of moral temptations, which in James revolve often around verbal sins and violent reactions (1:19-21; 3:-12) and political mongering (3:13-4:12), or external trials in the sense of persecution.”
James is candid enough to recognize that many of our discomforts may be at the hand of fellow believers rather than outsiders. For example, in James 2, the “trials” come from our spiritual “location”--we are victims due to easier access caused by both parties being from within the community of faith. If they treat us, their spiritual kin, in such an off-handed manner, there’s every reason to expect them to treat everyone else at least equally badly in non-religious settings. Indeed, by their standards they may regard themselves as being unusually benevolent in permitting us to remain at all! Would non-believers be even that accommodating? Probably not.
The criticisms of chapter 5 come immediately after a section rebuking the certainty of traders that they will make piles of money through their work (4:13-17). Those words are introduced by the admonition to such individuals, “Come now, you who say” (4:13)--words which make little sense unless addressed to believers. And chapter 5 begins with, “Come now, you rich” (5:1).
[Page 214] Hence the criticisms in 5:1-6 seem to have in mind the moral blindness of fellow Christians as well. In that case they provide a vivid example of those “believers” who do not permit even the most fundamental principles of justice toward others to control their behavior. Unfortunately, there are always those whose religion is only skin deep and has never penetrated to reform the soul. As explained by James himself, their behavior only makes them that much more the enemies of God.
Although one would anticipate that Christians are particularly in mind as the evil-doers, we run into the problem of whether there were that many economically well off Christians at this time for a significant amount of such mistreatment to exist. One option is to argue that the church was significantly bigger than often assumed though still a small percentage of the total population.
There is also a possible clue in the introductory “to the twelve tribes” (1:1). Since most Jewish Christians would presumably prefer to work for fellow monotheists, the bulk were probably laborers for ethnic Jews, though of a traditionalist thought. Yet they also had been taught the same things. (See the Old Testament precedents section.) Those of “the twelve tribes” would hear the same message if they paid attention to the Old Testament prophets who spoke of the evil of such injustices. These were likely the perpetuators James had in mind when Christians themselves were not.
In this approach, the “Come now” language of 4:13 and 5:1 is rhetorical: James is not actually addressing them; it is his way to rhetorically get his point across: To act as if the transgressors are present and he is personally addressing them. It is a way of vividly getting across the idea, “This is what I would say to you if I were there and addressing you.” Furthermore, “It is what I am saying to those of you who claim to be followers of Christ.”
[Page 215] The prominence of this theme of trials is the perfect introduction for a book that will deal with the various ways a person’s faith may be tested or tried—not only by others but also by our own pride and moral weaknesses. In ways these may be the most dangerous: when faced with the unjust acts of others, human pride can easily become involved. We won’t give in because—well, we simply won’t. It’s a matter of “face,” personal image, self-respect. But when our own preferences and weaknesses threaten to subvert us, we stand “stark naked:” we are faced with our most dangerous of enemies—ourselves when we are inclined to follow the path of indulgence rather than duty.
Nor does he claim that being faced with temptation is somehow itself a moral virtue, standing alone. Rather it is successfully facing such stumbling-blocks. Both short term and long-term.
If successfully resisted, it produces “patience” (1:3; “endurance,” Holman, ISV, NASB, Rotherham; “steadfastness, RSV; “strength to endure whatever happens in the future,” ATP). Our learned patience / endurance shows us that difficulties and temptations can be faced successfully and, by repeated exposure, create in us the habit of doing so.
Weymouth has the interesting reading of “power of endurance.” The English translation of “patience” easily carries the overtone of passivity; the Greek term carries one of something that is active and manifests personal strength through the endurance. [Page 216] Hence the appropriateness of Weymouth’s rendition: the endurance manifests your power and strength. Plato (Leg. 12.942) uses it in this sense when speaking of the patience of the soldier.
That is why James speaks of letting it develop further so that we can reach full maturity—“that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (1:4) Here we’ve gone far beyond just dealing with the immediate problem. Picture temptation as the weeds and undergrowth that prevent our faith from growing. By creating a pattern of resisting temptation, we’ve poured gallons of “weed killer” on that which would hinder us. By getting rid of this underbrush we are allowing ourselves to spiritually grow into the best person we could possibly be.
Not necessarily the person we would—in our dreams—be. That heroic and ideal individual could be mere fantasy. But the best person we could ever be in real life.
In contrast, allowing temptation to run the life diverts attention from personal growth to self-indulgence. From the seeking of maturity to the pleasure of tearing down the inhibitions that restrain us. It is inherently destructive—self-destructive at least. Often it goes far beyond that. How many lives can be ruined by one person “enjoying themselves” at the cost of others? If our mind-frame is “how can we use that person” (financially, sexually, in any other way), then we see others as mere things and objects and not as real human beings.
So our control over our temptations can have tremendous side-effects. Not only in permitting our own full growth but in assuring that others do not suffer from our making ourselves “happy.”
[Page 217] We strive to become morally “complete” and “perfect,” in the language of this verse (1:4) This does not refer to sinlessness. That is delusional. We strive to be better but none of us will reach perfection in that sense (1 John 1:8, 10). “Perfect(ion)” in this text, as often throughout the New Testament, carries the connotation of “complete(ness)” and full development. (Hence “mature and complete, lacking nothing,” ATP).
For parallels one might think of the Jewish priest who is in his full regalia and totally prepared for the day’s rituals. Or one might think of the soldier who is fully ready to face whatever may face him in battle—expected or unexpected. All the necessary preparations have been taken for success. Likewise the Christian who has morally prepared in these ways is fully prepared and expecting success on the battlefield of faith.
If You Lack the Wisdom to Understand This,
Pray to God for Assistance
ATP text: 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, it should be requested of
God—who gives to all generously and without criticism--and it will be given
to the requester. 6 But let it be asked with conviction, with no doubting it will
be answered, for one who doubts is like an ocean wave--driven and tossed
about by the wind of the storm. 7 Let not that person suppose that anything
will be received from the Lord! 8 Such a person is of two minds about what
will really happen, never certain about anything.
Development of the argument:
How is one to come to accept the reality that the turmoil and discomfort of trials may actually produce good for us? By nature, we are adverse to discomfort; it takes a conscious act of will to see a value in it. (Otherwise who would be nervous about going to a dentist? Or about their next college exam?) James suggests that his readers pray to God for wisdom--wisdom and insight on this subject is the specific type most natural to the context. If that is done, God will grant it (1:5-8), though the mechanism of how this is accomplished is not spelled out.
The instruction “let him ask of God” (1:5) implies that even having successfully traveled through the stormy waters of trials does not necessarily mean we have learned from them the moral lesson that God wants them to convey. To do that, he insists that we seek Divine assistance. Just as prayer for our daily food does not eliminate our role in seeking it out, neither does seeking for wisdom from our earthly difficulties come by prayer independently of also enduring the troubles. The exercise maxim of “pain means growth” is also true of other areas of life as well.
Like most answered prayer, one can never determine the “how,” only whether the desired result has been granted. There is one underlying condition, however, to that happening: one must truely believe that the result is obtainable. Otherwise one is nothing better than a wave of the sea that gets driven from one place to another (1:8) and accomplishes nothing. We dwell in chaos rather than stability.
[Page 219] Three characteristics of God’s willingness to answer prayer are spelled out in verse 5. Each of them touch on an aspect of why we are often hesitant to ask for help from others as well:
(1) He is willing to give to “all” (“to everyone,” God’s Word) who seek enlightenment. Divine generosity is not unexpected (what else would Deity do?), but the scope of it is still a bit startling by the unmitigated broadness of the pledge.
Many people will help their friends or those they think they can get something out of. Few are willing to help whoever asks. God doesn’t care. He wants us to understand truth better no matter who we are or how many times we have failed.
(2) He gives “liberally” (“generously,” ATP, ESV, God’s Word, Holman, NASB, NIV, RSV; “freely,” BBE, Rotherham). Jack Benny, a brilliant comedian on radio and then television from the 1930s into the 1960s made an entire career around the (fake) image of being a tightwad. Unfortunately when it comes to helpfulness, there are many who are the genuine article. They will give—a little. And please don’t ask for more. God’s attitude is not, “how little” but “how much” He can give. He wishes our insight to be a growing one so we can both help ourselves better and others as well.
Aside: A. T. Robertson points out that the connotation of the Greek term can also permit it to mean with a single purpose, with the Divine intent being centered on benefiting our insight rather than the emphasis being on the amount supplied (“generosity”) of the gift,
“Liberally” we have it in the standard versions. It is a rather difficult word to translate into English. It means simple, single-fold, sincere. Compare the “single” eye in Matthew 6:22; Luke 11:34. In Romans 12:8 it is not clear whether “singleness” or “liberality” is the idea, but “liberality” is obviously correct in 2 Corinthians 8:2, “the riches of their liberality.” So in 9:11, 13, but “singleness of heart” in Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22.
Oesterley finds the notion of James to be “singleness of aim, the aim being the imparting of benefit without requiring anything in return.” Likewise Bengel interprets it by simpliciter.
Either idea makes good sense, for surely God gives to us all with singleness of purpose and also with wealth of liberality. Certainly it is without bargaining on God’s part, for there is no mention of reciprocity.
God gives “without reproach” (“without criticism,” ATP; “without a
rebuke,” ISV; “without an unkind word,” BBE; “without finding fault,” NIV;
“doesn’t find fault with them,” God’s Word.)
In dealing with many people we fear (rightly) some form of backbiting in
response to a question. If the person is
at least trying to be polite he may simply give a loud “sigh” of exasperation
or quietly shake his head back and forth in amazement that we should need
assistance. In total contrast, God looks
upon seeking needed help with respect, as a positive act, as a praiseworthy
Hence God has every desire and every reason to respond to our prayer. What will become an obstacle is within us: It has to be “in faith, with no doubting” (1:6). In short, if you don’t really believe anything is going to happen—nothing will happen. Ironically enough, you are getting just the response you expected!
[Page 221] The real point could be somewhat different, however—not to doubt that He will act but, rather, not to doubt His fundamental character that motivates Him in everything He does. Having trust in Him rather than in the certainty of action, i.e., that whatever is done or not done will be for the best. The simple fact is that God will not answer all prayers with a “yes,” but our full confidence in His character means that He will do the right and best thing—whatever that might be.
“With no doubting” may be a more accurate translation, but the KJV’s original rendering conveys the meaning perhaps even more powerfully, “in faith, nothing wavering.”
Verse 6 explains the reason: such a person is so unsettled that he “is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind.” The waves don’t try to be waves, they are created by the forces around them. Likewise the believer who prays for spiritual insight had better have self-control or he will be no better than that. First inclined in one direction and then another. Tossed about by internal and / or external factors that control his life. Self-control has been abandoned.
How can even God help those who don’t help themselves? (This is not some type of advanced theology here; it is simple down-to-earth practical realism.) Or perhaps you would be more comfortable with this verbal formulation of the same principle: Why should God help those who don’t help themselves? If our actions—and non-actions—show no real concern and effort on our part, how is the prayer to be taken seriously?
[Page 222] At this point, the argument seems to become even more sharp. James began speaking in terms of how the one who lacks wisdom should ask God for it (1:5) and then points out that without self-control--in this context, the consistent, persistent desire for wisdom and insight as contrasted with it only being a sporadic interest and effort--God can not act for we are not helping ourselves. But then he suddenly takes this narrow faceted subject of answered prayer and seemingly applies it to all subjects, “For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” (1:7).
Perhaps our broadening the theme is not the intent of the verse but the conclusion to be drawn from it, however. For if the person who does not believe he will receive what he is praying for on one subject (wisdom), how can he ever expect to receive an affirmative answer on any other subject? The required unwavering faith is simply not present in either case!
James deals with an unpleasant reality of life: our mind frame has a carry over effect from one part of life to another. What shapes us in a negative direction in one area can hardly escape from steering us wrong in any other area where it has an impact. We get used to a life of wavering in one part of life and it easily becomes the status quo for all. Or as James words it, “he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (1:8)
Precedent creates pattern. Lack of commitment becomes the norm.
Some believe that James is creating this imagery from two earlier types of Biblical teaching. We have Jesus talking about the impossibility of “serv[ing] two masters” and how the inevitable result is loyalty to one and a despising of the other (Matthew 6:24). A useful sermonic illustration, but James is talking about the person who can’t make up his mind rather than one has done so—to serve two people with contradictory interests.
[Page 223] Perhaps more germane is the Old Testament demand that one love God “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). In other words with no divided heart, with full, total, and sole commitment.
Remember to Keep Your Earthly Status
God Has in Store Its Opposite
ATP text: 9 Let the comrade of lowly status take pride in being made
important, 10 just as the rich should in being reduced to their true
importance. After all, wealth passes away like a flower of the field: 11 For
the sun rises with a scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls off
and its beauty is destroyed. Similarly the rich will fade away in the midst of
their pursuits. 12 Benefited is the one who successfully endures the
enticements of life, for when one has been approved, then the crown of life is
received that the Lord has promised to those who love Him.
Development of the argument:
James next presents another illustration of an area in which wisdom is required to both accept and understand its consequences: the fact that lower class coreligionist will eventually receive an “exaltation” while the rich (so far as this life goes at least) “will pass away” (1:9-11). This flies in the face of earthly common sense. In the here and now, one takes little comfort in being poor and can hardly imagine ever receiving an “exaltation” that takes one above it. Likewise the rich individual can rarely imagine being poor. Both are always “possibilities,” but they never seem more than “idle fantasies” that will ever occur in real life.
[Page 224] Not usually, that is.
Not except when they do happen. Though the devastation of the rich is more likely than the enrichment of the under class. Economic crashes have occurred and the mythologists notwithstanding will ultimately hit even this country once again. In the past these have occurred when the United States was an agricultural land and at least the minimals of existence could usually be maintained even under the worst economic conditions.
Now that we are extremely urban, the dislocation and societal consequences of a Great Depression style crash are frightening to even think of. I write the revision of this commentary in 2012 as the Great Recession is ready to finish its fourth year. The economists claim it is over but few outside committed partisans can see but modest improvements here and there—improvements nullified by inflation (officially lower than what shoppers actually pay) and unemployment (“reduced” in major part by those who have given up looking and by the partially employed being counted as “employed” even though they used to be so full time).
We aren’t up to the Great Depression catastrophe level of the 1930s. Hopefully we won’t be. But the “Wasted 2010s” are waiting to become a historian’s catch phrase for this period. And as I do the final “polish” of the manuscript in January of 2014, we continue our slow crawl out of the mire and the politicians still brag of how much “success” they’ve brought the economy.
Worse yet: The cycle of boom and bust will happen again. It’s the nature of history.
[Page 225] James does not claim that the equaling out he speaks of will necessarily occur in this life. Indeed, the vivid picture he paints of grass and flowers as perishing (equated with the rich in both verses 10 and 11) argues that he has the “great equalizer” of death in mind. At that point the right living “lowly” Christian has a reward ready, while the amoral and unconcerned rich only has the memories of passed away wealth. The amoral wealthy actually has nothing permanent left, while the right-doing poor person has the “crown of life” mentioned in verse 12.
Indeed, verse 12 has a vital lesson for those at both ends of the economic totem pole, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation [ATP: successfully endures the enticements of life].” The poor “end” of the spectrum is tempted by despair, rage, and wrath and the other by unconcern and contempt. There are the temptations of poverty and the temptations of wealth and economic prosperity. But each does contain temptations and how we respond to them shapes whether we treat others justly in the current life and how God treats us when the time of the Great Accounting finally arrives.
At that time wealth won’t matter in the least. How wealth was used will matter everything. We run the great danger of “pigeon-holing” this concept into a description of, say, the top 1% of money-earners. But the reality is that there are degrees of economic prosperity just as there are of economic want. Compared to others in the world, most of us are somewhere in the “wealthy” spectrum. (Incredible as that reality seems.)
The modern American “poor” (more or less commonly) have cell phones, cable television, and even the internet—not to mention ipods and tablets and other electronic [Page 226] “toys,” though they likely lag a few years behind the more prosperous in obtaining them. But they still have them. They are “poorer” and are often economically struggling (just as millions a few step higher on the economic totem pole). Hence, just about every American has to take into consideration that the warnings to the rich apply to all of us and not just the blessings applied to the poor.
Hence the admonition of Galatians 6:10 has a pressing application to one and all, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Even when cash is unavailable, if time is, then that can often be just as vital in helping someone as the dollars in the pocket.
Aside: It has been suggested that the imagery of the flowers of the field is derived from the Septuagint rendering of Isaiah 40:6 where the Hebrew “flower of the field” is rendered as “flower of grass.” In contrast, when the same Hebrew expression is rendered by the LXX in Psalms 103:15 it retains the proper wording of “field.”
When James utilizes the image he speaks of the “flower of grass,” as in Isaiah 40, pointing to greenery of all types and not only or strictly flowers. In English, however, the rendering may still speak of “flower of the field” (as in Holman and the NKJV) though some will reflect the broader reach of the language (“flowering grass,” NASB; “flower of grass,” ESV; “like flowers among the herbage,” Weymouth).
Although this provides a fascinating hint of which text James may have in mind, what is of greater interest here is the context of the statement in Isaiah. After predicting in its New Testament interpretation the coming of John the Baptist and the Messiah Jesus (“prepare the way of the Lord,” Isaiah 40:3), the Old Testament prophet hears the [Page 227] supernatural voice, “6 The voice said, ‘Cry out!’ And he said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, because the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.’ ”
In its original setting the warning of the impermanence of life is addressed to all humankind. Those aware of that original context would surely be intended to take away the lesson: what is true of every one else, is also true of the wealthy and prestigious. They have no more exemption from this inevitability than the rest of us. Whether they like it or not, they unquestionably share in our fate!
But it is also a reminder to the poorer as well: just as it applies to the rich it also applies to us. So to speak, a “shot across the bow” to remind them that God’s standard applies to one and all. The poorer aren’t exempt either! God’s abiding truth cuts in both directions.
What Tempts Us to Evil Comes from Within
Rather than Being Sent by God
ATP text: 13 Let no one say when tried, "I am being tempted by God"; for God is incapable of being enticed by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when lured away by personal desires and trapped. 15 Then, when hungering for something has been conceived within us like a pregnancy, we give birth to sin; and sin, when it grows to maturity, brings forth death. 16 Do not be fooled, my dearly loved comrades! 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father who created the heavenly lights. Unlike these, this light never vanishes nor is there darkness due to His changing. 18 By His own decision He gave us birth by the word of truth so that we might be the first of His people.
Development of the argument:
Having established the need to endure trials and testing, in the previous section, James made a remark that has application both to the preceding discussion of wealth and poverty and to temptation in general, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (verse 12). This has an obvious application to the one who is not carried away by either poverty (verse 9) or riches (verse 10). Hence we have included it in the preceding segment.
Yet it also does double duty, not merely as a conclusion of not being wrecked by the limitations of poverty or the excesses permitted by wealth. He now applies that truism to the broader discussion about the source of any temptation that any person faces. He stresses the fact that the inclination to do any sort of thing that will inflict ourselves or others with spiritual, moral, or physical hurt and injury never comes from God but from within (1:13-15). It is not poverty or wealth in itself or any other aspect of life—the problems arise from how we handle the desires and difficulties that arise.
Here we have a paradox: Such testing of our character has been laid out as essential and desirable, yet God has nothing personally to do with it. The implicit concept is that God uses the adversities and difficulties of life to evaluate us and better us, rather than directly inflicting them.
[Page 229] Even if one points to the possible exceptions to this generalization that are given in the Scriptures, they are still just that, exceptions--James is targeting the typical, every-day situation of his readers. Rules-of-thumb originate come what is the case 99% of the time, not the 1% of exceptions. The inward origin of our temptations is a theme that Jesus developed during His ministry (Matthew 15:7-12, a text where He quotes from Isaiah describing an earlier generation; cf. Jesus’ explanation in verses 17-20.).
This is an important concept. If God originated all our temptations then would not yielding to them be required in order to accept the Divine will? In a sense, not yielding would itself be a rebellion against God’s intents.
This would carry the corollary that we are not responsible for what we’ve done. The responsibility actually lies with God.
On the other hand, if our temptations--at least normally--originate from human sources then the resisting of them is natural in order to conform to the demands of God. Those few not coming from that direction would represent God testing us in the hope that we will not fail the test. That we will not yield. In both types, the stubborn refusal to surrender represents the result that God wants. (For additional approaches to the relationship of God to the difficulties of this life see the difficult texts section in a following chapter.)
[Page 230] According to verse 14, temptations come from the coming together of what we would like to do and the opportunity to act upon that desire. “What we would like to do” is found in the description of temptation as a person being “drawn away by his own desires [ATP: lured away by personal desires]” (“our own desires that drag us off,” CEV; “lured . . . by his own desire,” RSV; “dragged away,” NIV.) It isn’t like some powerful force has reached down into us and forced us to consider something totally alien to our own dreams, fantasies, and, perhaps, even preferences.
The Jewish philosopher Philo spoke of the wars of antiquity erupting from that kind of inner drive: “For all the wars of Greeks and barbarians between themselves or against each other . . . are sprung from one source, desire; the desire for money or glory or pleasure. These it is that bring disaster to the human race.” But it was not, of course, the desire by itself. Only when the desire encountered opportunity did the two merge and commander the warrior’s life.
The same is true of us—and he does include us and every other human being by his all inclusive language “but each one is tempted when he is drawn away” (verse 14). A simple illustration from our non-warrior, more typical lives: If a person cherishes their regular dose of internet hardcore pornography, what is going to happen when—even inadvertently—the opportunity for adultery actually occurs?
The opportunity hasn’t created the temptation all by itself. We’ve made ourselves predisposed by our past behavior. We’ve created and strengthened the desire and now we are simply being given the opportunity to act upon our “innocent fantasy.” Which turns out not to be so “innocent” after all. And a whole lot harder to resist.
[Page 231] This brings us to the second half of the equation--being “enticed” by the opportunity to act upon our fantasies (1:14; “that trap us,” CEV; “trapped by it,” ISV). As the apocryphal writer puts it quite accurately, “For the fascination of wickedness obscures what is good, and roving desire perverts the innocent mind” (Wisdom 4:12, New Revised Standard Version).
Yes, it has power. But we are the ones that multiplied its strength far beyond what it would have had--through our dreams and fantasies in which we pretended to have just that opportunity to act. And having been given it in real life, what are the chances of evading it? We imagined it. We drooled for it. Presented with the reality, it requires almost super-human guts to turn our back on it.
So you might just have enough strength to resist, but you are having to fight yourself rather than just the opportunity to do the wrong thing. Does a long distance runner like to run the Olympics with an extra ten pounds attached to each leg during the race? If victory occurs, it will be far more good fortune than good preparation for the competition!
It has been suggested that the imagery in verse 14 comes from fishing: You “entice” the fish with the bait and then you catch / trap it and drag it away. Or to quote Philo once again, “There is no single thing that does not yield to the enticement of pleasure, and get caught and dragged along in her entangling nets.” You could say that the Devil is the fisherman in James’ presentation, trying to catch us. You could also say that we play both roles, we are the fish and the fisherman for we “catch ourselves” on the very “bait” we have put out.
[Page 232] This process of falling into sin is pictured as if a pregnancy in verse 15: having “conceived” the desire for the moral evil, the desire “gives birth to sin” by yielding to the opportunity. But that is only the beginning stage of the pregnancy, so to speak: “when it is full-grown, [it] brings forth death.” Instead of the maximization of our pleasure it, perversely, brings forth disastrous self-inflicted spiritual death.
This is not the beginning stage; this is the reaping stage. When the proverbial “chickens come home to roost.”
We never thought it would end this way. But it does.
We never thought it could end this way. But it does.
We always thought we could find a way to keep things from getting out of hand. But we didn’t.
At this point we should stress that the language James uses of “tempted,” “his own desires,” “enticed,” and the pregnancy comparison, lead us to think in terms of sexual sin and it is in accord with how we normally read such imagery that we have developed our preceding analysis. Yet the language is broad indeed and properly has other applications as well.
It is talking about wishing for anything so much—and the logic even if not the immediate illustration, applies even to things that are right in themselves—that we abandon all restraints to obtain them. Even when we have to act dishonorably and dishonestly to obtain them. That is just as much true as fantasizing sex and yielding to adultery as to fantasizing a promotion and yielding to the temptation of dishonorable backstabbing and lies and even fraud to obtain it.
[Page 233] Just as the temptations to act dishonorably do not originate with God but with our own human weaknesses, the remaining verses of this section make the same point by emphasizing the “other side of the coin”—they stress that, unlike destructive impulses, only good and desirable gifts come from God (1:16-18). As the text develops it, this is part of the unchanging essence of the Divine nature. “There is no variation or shadow of turning [ATP: this light never vanishes nor is there darkness due to His changing]” (1:17), i.e., He doesn’t change at all—what He was yesterday, He will be today, and permanently. That means we can count on His demands, His intentions, and His promises staying uniform.
He won’t cut us “a special break,” but he won’t impose a special demand either. That last is not to be underestimated in its importance: In dealing with human superiors, you never know what “innovation” they will come up with that will make your life more difficult.
With God that will never happen. There won’t ever be an unexpected and unheard of order. We won’t have to worry about Him changing His mind and imposing something unforeseen and unwarned of in the future. What His law is, will remain so—nothing less but nothing more either. In short, we can fully count on stability in our relationship with the Divine. He has goals He expects us to live up to. But not continually changing ones.
It isn’t just that He wants mortals to avoid evil. He wants them to be examples of what His people could be if they wish to be: “a kind of firstfruits of His creatures” (1:18). These were early converts being addressed. As such they had the responsibility—and opportunity—to set an example for those who would come later.
[Page 234] So do we.
We speak of the difficulties and hardships we’ve been through due to our faith. And we think the upcoming generation will somehow—miraculously?—avoid them? By what we accomplished they will learn that their dedication can be equally profound and fulfilling. The hurt and pain is not in vain.
Rage at Provocation by Others
Should Be Reined In
ATP text: 19 Therefore, my beloved comrades, let every individual be quick
to listen, but slow to respond and slow to become outraged; 20 for human
wrath does not cause the kind of right behavior God approves of.
Development of the argument:
Self-control and restraint in what we say sounds like an idle truism and little more. How else are we supposed to act? Isn’t it a “given?”
Yet it is especially difficult when faced with the kind of trials and temptations and difficulties discussed earlier in the chapter. We are not to permit those injustices we ourselves have suffered to become an excuse to pour out similar abuses upon others. What we are to avoid is summarized under the generic concept of anger (1:19-20), probably because this is the emotion and attitude that is most likely to motivate the retaliation and vindictiveness that will harm others (1:21).
[Page 235] To avoid inflaming a situation, three steps are laid out in verse 19. The principles are intended for all Christians, no matter who they are or their earthly status. This is shown by the fact that James speaks of how “every man” is to act this way. No exceptions.
The first step is to be “swift to hear” (“quick to hear,” ESV, NASB, RSV; “quick to listen,” ATP, CEV, God’s Word, ISV, NIV, TEV). We speak of our “tuning out” what others say. James insists that we are to “tune in” and listen. This way we can be sure we actually heard what we thought was being said and that we have the facts right.
The second step is to be “slow to speak” (“slow to respond,” ATP). This assures we ourselves don’t say something without thinking it through. If that happens, one is either locked into a position a little thought would have avoided or one is forced to an embarrassing backtracking. Human nature, though, often argues for stubbornness even in those cases where we know we are in the wrong. We refuse to back off because—well, simply because “we won’t,” which often translates into, “our pride won’t let us.”
The third step is “slow to wrath” (“slow to anger,” NASB, RSV; “slow to become outraged,” ATP). We can take this as anger expressed in words or anger expressed in deeds. Either way, this restraint assures that you don’t do anything without thinking it through. The proverbial “big mouth” or other extreme reaction can make a bad situation degenerate even further.
This policy of restraint is insisted upon because human wrath “does not produce the righteousness of God” (1:21; “God’s righteous purpose,” TEV). Weymouth renders [Page 236] the entire verse in an especially useful manner, “For a man’s anger does not lead to action which God regards as righteous.” (Note “the kind of right behavior God approves of” in the ATP).
Anger / wrath inevitably tends to think in terms of retaliation and not justice. God’s vengeance seeks both. Human wrath tends to force aside all restraining factors possible. God would have man to always recognize that there are limits to what is appropriate and right. In short, even as “justified retaliation,” human rage can easily carry us far beyond anything acceptable to God.
We have interpreted the verse in light of its emphasis on wrath / anger. “The other side of the coin,” however, is equally important for the verse contrasts “wrath” with “righteousness of God.” “Righteousness” is a constructive term and refers to the kind of behavior and character God wants us to manifest—positive, upright, and uplifting. We are to exhibit that type of mind frame rather than a punitive and destructive one.
Perhaps, in part, that is because even the most “justified” human retaliation still can’t force a person to change and adopt the behavioral standards that God encourages and expects. Much less admit that an injustice has been done to us as well.
The various aspects of life are often interlocked in subtle ways, but the correlation between verbal provocation and rage is one of the easier ones to see. “Anger inflames one to hasty and unguarded talk. In turn the words act as fuel to the flames. The talk inflames the anger and the anger inflames the talk. The more one talks the angrier he becomes, like a spit-fire. If one stops talking, his anger will cool down for lack of fuel.”
[Page 237] In the apocryphal works, Sirach also stressed this need to control what comes out of the mouth in language that James would surely have been receptive to,
13 Be swift to hear, but slow to answer. 14 If you have the knowledge, answer your neighbor; if not, put your hand over your mouth. 15 Honor and dishonor through talking! A man's tongue can be his downfall. 16 Be not called a detractor; use not your tongue for calumny; 17 For shame has been created for the thief, and the reproach of his neighbor for the double-tongued (Chapter 5, New American Bible).
The use of the male specific for “man” in James 1:20 has led some to argue that it is the male shortcoming that is specifically under consideration. In behalf of this can be introduced the fact that males were your normal synagogue leaders and at least some ancient works pointed to the male as the greater offender than women when it came to anger (Longinus, On the Sublime, 32).
This works best if one assumes that James has teachers (way over in chapter 3:1!) as the subject matter here as well. In the present context there seems no obvious reason to assume that is the case or that the author is even limiting himself to congregational relationships.
Nor that we should assume women would be so unlikely to resort to excesses that they could not and would not be included in the condemnation. Is this not a case where “male” language—as it has been in English until recent decades—has done double duty, referring to both males in particular and humans in general, according to the specific context? (Remember the use of “brethren” to cover both genders?)
[Page 238] Furthermore, surely experience proves that the female can be just as vindictive and revenge seeking as any male alive. Personally, I still recall a certain woman from decades back and wonder whether she ever managed to get her husband killed in one of the confrontations she manipulated. In “real life” humans of both genders can make fools of themselves through their behavior. The scriptures are surely not oblivious of that social reality!
Rage and Retaliation Should Be Replaced
with Carrying Out
God’s Will and Benefiting Others
ATP text: 21 Therefore set aside all your vile and abundant
wickedness. In place of it embrace with humility the word implanted within
you, which is able to save your souls. 22 Do what the word instructs rather
than merely hearing the words. Otherwise you just deceive yourselves! 23
For if anyone is just a hearer of the word and not a doer, that person is like
one examining their real image in a mirror; 24 yet after observing it, leaves,
and immediately forgets the true self that had been seen.
25 In contrast, one who studies intently the perfect law—the law of
liberty--and abides by its teachings—one who does not forget what is heard,
but is a doer of the commanded work--this person is the one blessed in
obedience. 26 If anyone among you considers yourself religious, yet does not
control personal speech--but deceives the heart within--your religion is
worthless. 27 Pure and spotless religion in the eyes of God and the Father is
this: to assist orphans and widows during their time of need, and to keep
oneself from being corrupted to any degree by the world.
Development of the argument:
Note the linkage between verses 20 and 21: “(20) For the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (21) Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” If you had given in and spoken without thinking (1:19) what would have been manifested—justice, prudence, sound reasoning, and the demand for the triumph of character and justice?
Far from it! What would have been poured out would have represented the worst of us, the “filthiness” and the “wickedness” rather than the nobility and the constant search for improvement. Unleashed anger is like taking the top off of a shaked soda bottle and letting the contents explode outwards.
One way to avoid this is to think matters through before we speak—the course enjoined in verse 19. The other means is stressed here: bleed these things out of our nature. It is as if he seeks out the worst possible description he can provide of human faults. (Or is this, in part, his way of puncturing our delusion of vast superiority to others?)
He refers to our “filthiness” (“vile . . . wickedness,” ATP). Note that he stresses that “all” of it should be purged. Every human being has their own specific pet quirks that represent their strongest vulnerabilities. Others may have the same inclinations but barely recognize their presence for they are so weak. They are little more than mere “background noise.”
[Page 240] But for us they represent our core faults that vie to control us instead of us controlling them. In extreme cases, we would do virtually anything not to give them up. It is like being hooked on a “psychic” rather than physical drug.
“Filthiness” itself is a term that, in its literal usage, “refers to external grime, as with filthy clothes, stained and muddy.” What that is to our fleshly appearance, their moral equivalents are to our spiritual appearance in the sight of God and those who are spiritually alert.
The second term James invokes stresses how much there is of it, our “overflow of wickedness” (“abundant wickedness,” ATP; “rampant wickedness,” ESV; “superabundance of evil,” Young’s Literal). Picture your bathtub overflowing, full of dirty water.
The thrust is that this evil exists in us—all of us and in quantity. This is an important principle in its own right. In this epistle James jumps vigorously on injustice within the Christian congregation as some abuse others. Yet he makes abundantly clear in this first chapter that every single believer has his or her own faults and has little grounds to retreat into a smug superiority to everyone else.
From the poorer person’s standpoint, the message is this: Yes, you’ve been verbally and physically abused but don’t think for a second that you aren’t just as capable of similar behavior if given the opportunity. Your own poor neighbor, what did you do to him when you got annoyed?
The warning to the richer person is this: Yes, you may be able to get away with it for now, but remember that time and circumstance can force you to have to endure people [Page 241] with the same temperament and excess. Look around you . . . haven’t you noticed those quite more successful competitors who are openly polite but seem to be sneering when you aren’t looking? What will they do when they have you, their “friend,” at a disadvantage? Oh—you really think so? Fat chickens can be plucked just like thin ones!
The seeds that breed injustice are human-wide and not merely class specific.
How do these Christian listeners and readers know what right and wrong behavior actually is? Well they have “the word” (1:22)—spoken and, depending upon the date of the epistle, some of it in writing. Furthermore, they had the Old Testament Torah and prophets who also inveighed against such conduct—as we will see in the Old Testament precedents section. Because of the limited literacy of the bulk of the population and the high cost of copying, personal copies of specific Biblical books were probably uncommon. Hence being “hearers” (1:22) and “hearer(s) of the word” (1:23) would normally carry a literal connotation—they had heard it read, in the church services in particular.
There were clearly those who showed up at services and thought that assured their acceptability to God: they were regularly present and were “a hearer of the word” (1:23). But that revelatory word shows us the image of ourselves—warts and all—just like a mirror (1:23). But if we then walk away and forget that picture of us as we really are (1:24), of what abiding value is the knowledge? We have promptly managed to “forget” it.
[Page 242] There is something transparently absurd and ludicrous in the behavior that is described: We have someone carefully absorbed in using the mirror and examining his appearance and then treating what he’s been so concerned with as if it were nothing at all. Walking away and forgetting about it.
Or it could be just a quick glance to see how we are that is foredoomed to be of no value by its very brevity: for example, you quickly glance at your appearance with your mind on something else. As Adamson translates the nuances, “He catches sight of himself, and (at once) is gone, and forthwith forgets what he was like (in the mirror).”
Either way, this is such bizarre behavior that it has been suggested that it was James’ very aim to make that point—not by saying it was such, but by using an example that would prove it. We look to learn something. If we don’t, we’ve wasted our time.
Because of their foolish behavior, arose their individual need to “look into the perfect law of liberty” and “continue” in what it teaches, not being “forgetful” of its instruction but being a “doer” of what they have heard (1:25). In short, the gospel is not merely something to be listened to. Not even just something to be believed and embraced. It is also something to be lived. And the result is being “blessed” by God as we do so (1:25).
What comes next argues that James’ society was much like ours: one may say anything--however profane or insulting or derogatory it may be--and still count oneself as religious in the inner “heart.” James dismisses this as delusion: he warns that “this one’s religion is useless” (1:26). Instead, true religion is being personally “pure and undefiled” [Page 243] and this is manifested by retaining one’s individual purity and through helping those in need. The most exposed elements of any society (“orphans and widows”)—the ones most likely to have no one to fall back upon--are specified because of their greater potential for suffering (1:26-27).
He does not claim that such charitableness is required for a healthy religion in society’s view. But it is required for “pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father,” i.e., in His sight and mind. The NASB makes this clearer by rendering it “in the sight of” and the TEV speaks of “what the Father considers to be pure and genuine religion.”
Note also that he singles out the “social welfare” side of religion and not the “ritual” side of matters. This is not to suggest that he regarded worshipping God exactly in the way He instructed as something of no concern or that they were free to modify it in all the ways they might consider attractive. But their problem was how to treat others and it was in light of their particular problem that he defined religion.
Everything else might be done perfectly right but so long as this was missing, they were still falling dangerously short. It wasn’t that this was all that was necessary to have “pure and undefiled religion,” but that here was the specific aspect that desperately needed to be addressed by them. In other words he defines proper religion as including the needs of the unfortunate but not as exclusively being just that.
James is certainly not intending to lay out a complete list of what Christianity involves. Indeed, he lays out only one moral principle (“to keep oneself unspotted from the world) and two specific behavioral actions (“to visit orphans and widows in their trouble”). The latter often involved doing both simultaneously (helping the widows along with their orphans). Worship of God is not mentioned. What one is to believe is not specified. His assumption seems clearly to be: If you get this right, the rest isn’t likely to cause you major problems.
[Page 244] Although we have implied it already, it would be best to make it explicit regarding the admonition to “lay aside” evil and to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” In a different context this would suggest that they were non-Christians who needed to embrace the gospel for their salvation.
“Because the letter is already addressed to
those who are a part of the believing community (1:1), this phrase must be
directed toward believers. Consequently
the notion of ‘putting off’ should not be viewed as ‘conversion” language but
as ‘repentance’ language.” This is confirmed by how chapter 5 describes
those who have done wrong as those who “wander from the truth and
someone turns him back” (verse 19). They once had the truth but had drifted away
 The concept is developed in different language by McCartney, 78.
 [McKnight, James, 63-64.
 Hartin, James, 49.
 For a fascinating analysis of the evidence for this, see McKnight, James, 66-67.
 Bauckham “James and Jesus,” 103.
 Wesley L. Wachob, “The Languages of ‘Household’ and ‘Kingdom’ in the Letter of James: A Socio-Rhetorical Study,” in Reading James with New Eyes: Methodological Reassessments of the Letter of James, edited by Robert L. Webb and John S. Kloppenborg, Library of New Testament Studies / Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement 342 (London: T&T Clark International, 2007), 156-157.
 Ibid., 157.
 McKnight, James, 75.
 Ibid., 88.
 Ibid., 88-89.
 Ibid., 89.
 Blomberg and Kamell, James, 51.
 Robertson, 64.
 Implying but not directly saying it, Hartin, James, 61.
 Blomberg and Kamell, James, 54.
 Ibid., 62-63.
 Philo, Husbandry (paragraph 103), as quoted by Moo, 75.
 Robertson, 91.
 Witherington, 439-440.
 Blomberg and Kamell, James, 87.
 Hartin, James, 98.
 Adamson. James: The Man, 184-185. Pages 410-411 and footnote 57 (same pages) argues that the Greek wording conveys a brevity of look far shorter than the shaving scenario used to explain it.
 Blomberg and Kamell, 91.
 Hartin, James, 102, 109.
[Page 248]  Darian Lockett, “ ‘Unstained by the World:’ Purity and Pollution as an Indicator of Cultural Interaction in the Letter of James,” in Reading James with New Eyes: Methodological Reassessments of the Letter of James, edited by Robert L. Webb and John S. Kloppenborg, Library of New Testament Studies / Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement 342 (London: T&T Clark International, 2007), 57.
 McCartney, 130.
 Darian Lockett, Purity and Worldview in the Epistle of James, Library of New Testament Studies / Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement 366 (London: T&T Clark, 2008), 109.
 Ibid., Note 7, page 109.