Faith and Wisdom (1:1-8)
1 James calls himself a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Every Christian—including the chief leaders—are God’s servants (see Romans 1:1 and comment). A servant lives in complete dependence on his master and remains obedient to him in everything. We too should live as God’s servants. No matter how much authority we are given in this life, we are still servants. For whatever authority we have belongs not to us but to God.
We are servants not only of God but also of the Lord Jesus Christ. Notice that James uses Jesus’ full title here. The name Jesus is a man’s name, the name of the man who lived here on earth, who taught and performed miracles, who died and was raised from the dead. The name Christ means “anointed one” (Psalm 2:2; Acts 4:26). In the Hebrew language1 the word for “anointed one” is Messiah (John 4:25). Christ was “anointed” to be our Savior and to be the mediator to reconcile us to God. The third part of Jesus’ title is Lord, which in the Greek language2 means God. It is the name given to God throughout the Old Testament. Therefore, we must understand from this that Jesus is both man and God. This is why He is the one true mediator between man and God.
James wrote this letter mainly to Jewish Christians—that is, to Jews who believed in Christ.3 These believers had been scattered about because of the persecution against Christians by non-believing Jews and also by the Romans.
James addresses these believers as the twelve tribes—that is, the twelve tribes of Israel, the Jewish nation. These twelve tribes were descended from the twelve sons of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson. But James has not written this letter only for these Jewish Christians; he has written it for all believers everywhere. Therefore, whether we are Jewish believers or Gentile believers, this letter has been written for us.
2 The trials mentioned in this section are the troubles and persecution that we suffer for Christ’s sake. James is not talking here about the troubles that come on us because of our own mistakes and sins.
James does not say that trials are themselves a joy. Rather, he says we are to “consider” them a joy. Why should we consider trials a joy? Because from this kind of trial we receive much spiritual benefit (see verses 3-4). The followers ofother religions are able to endure trials, but only Christians are able to rejoice in their trials.
3 Here James calls these trials a testing of our FAITH. What benefits do these trials bring to us? Such trials produce in us perseverance. God allows trials to come upon us in order to test and strengthen our faith (see 1 Peter 1:6-7). To persevere means to be firm and strong in faith. It means to be brave and courageous, and not to whine and howl like a dog when it’s beaten. As a man perseveres in trials, he becomes stronger. But his strength is not in himself; rather, he receives his strength from Christ through faith.
Another word for perseverance is patience. Patience is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Such spiritual patience or perseverance is essential for us; our salvation depends on it. Jesus said, “… he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13; Luke 21:19).
There is a second reason why God allows trials to come upon us, and that is in order to discipline us. Perhaps we have wandered from God’s path; or perhaps we have stopped walking according to His will. God by means ofvarious trials will try to bring us back onto the right path. When such discipline comes upon us, we must not lose heart (Hebrews 12:5-6). Rather, we should accept such trials with joy, knowing this, that they have come upon us for our own good and in accordance with God’s will.
4 The fruit of perseverance is maturity. Trials come upon us so that we might be mature and complete. The mature Christian is one who is patient, who perseveres. The character of a mature Christian lacks nothing; it is complete. All the fruits of the Holy Spirit are evident in his life. Such a person is like a fully ripened fruit.
Fruit ripens unevenly; first only one side ripens. But as the sun shines and the rain falls upon the fruit, it begins to ripen on all sides. Christians are like that.
5 All Christians are continually growing in maturity. We each still lack certain things. One thing we often lack is wisdom. In this verse, we are given a tremendous promise: if any of us lacks wisdom, all he has to do is ask and it will be given to him. We will receive all the wisdom we need; God gives His gifts generously. God does not find fault with us because we lack wisdom; He does not rebuke us. He is our loving heavenly Father; we can go to Him without fear.
Wisdom is different from knowledge. We gain knowledge by our own effort. We gain knowledge by studying in school. But true wisdom is a gift of God.4 Wisdom is greater than knowledge, because wisdom includes the gift of using knowledge. Knowledge is of no benefit unless it is used wisely.
6-8 In order to receive anything from God we must ask in faith. If we pray without faith, God will not give us what we ask. This rule applies not only to wisdom, but to anything we ask for.
The man who doubts is a double-minded man (verse 8). With one part of his mind he hopes to receive what he asks for; but with the other part of his mind he doubts that he will receive it. Such a man’s faith is not firm; it is unstable. Such a man is tossed back and forth like the waves of the sea.
The Poor and the Rich (1:9-11)
9 The brother in humble circumstances is a believer who is a slave, a servant, a prisoner, a man of low caste, or one who has fallen into some kind of difficulty. Such a man’s worldly position is indeed humble and lowly. But, through faith, his spiritual position—that is, his high position—is good, and he can take pride in it.5 He is God’s child and Christ’s fellow heir (Romans 8:14,16-17). The world is the opposite of the kingdom of God. Those who are lowly in the world will be exalted in the kingdom of God (see Matthew 5:35; 23:11-12; Mark 10:43-44).
10-11 The one who is rich refers here to a wealthy Christian brother. The rich brother must not take pride in his wealth; his wealth will soon perish (Matthew 6:1921). His business will not remain forever, but in time will fade away (verse 11). The rich brother must not pile up his wealth; instead, he should give it to the poor and use it for Christ’s work (see Mark 10:2123). He must not consider his wealth his own; it belongs to God. Let him put himself in a low position (verse 10); then he will take pride in God and not in his wealth (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
Who are the rich? Whoever has land and possessions should consider himself rich. James is not speaking here only of the very rich; he is speaking also of Christians with just a small amount of wealth. Such people don’t like to think of themselves as “rich”; but compared with the poor, they are indeed rich.
Riches perish; God’s word remains forever. The man who puts his trust in riches instead of in God will perish with his riches. He is like a flower that will wither and pass away (see Isaiah 40:6-8; 1 Peter 1:23-25). No one can trust both in riches and in God at the same time (see Matthew 6:24).
Trials and Temptations (1:12-18)
12 The believer who perseveres will receive the crown of life. The “crown of life” is the crown of victory over sin, or the crown of victory in our life’s race (see 1 Corinthians 9:25; 2 Timothy 4:7-8). The main meaning of the crown of life, however, is salvation, or eternal life. … he who stands firm to the end will be saved (Mark 13:13). We need to bear our cross only for a short time; but we shall wear our crown forever.
God has promised to give the crown of life to those who love him. Those who love God are those who believe in Him and obey Him. Love, obedience, and faith can never be separated.
We must think about the word trial in this verse. Trials are various kinds of troubles and difficult circumstances which come upon us at different times in our lives.6 God allows such trials to come on us in order to test and to strengthen our faith (verse 2). But when trials come, it is possible for us to fall into sin. For example, if we are suffering persecution because ofour faith, we may be tempted to give up our faith. To give up our faith is a great sin. Or, for example, if by God’s grace we have been given the chance to gain some wealth, we may be tempted to use that wealth for ourselves; we may begin loving our wealth and stop loving God. If we do this, we will have fallen into sin. Or, for another example, we may begin to fall in love with some man or woman, even though we are already married. In such a circumstance the temptation to sin will be very great; our faith will indeed be tested.
These are all examples of trials that can lead us into temptation to sin. If we do not stand firm and persevere in such situations, we shall fall into sin. The trial itself does not cause us to sin; rather, it is our inner desires and lusts that cause us to sin (verse 14). Sin arises in our sinful nature. We cannot blame our trials for our sin; we can only blame ourselves.
13-14 In these verses, James uses the word tempted. Here he is not talking about the kind of trials that he mentioned in verses 2 and 12. He is talking here about the TEMPTATION or desire to sin. God, according to His will, may allow trials to come upon us for the testing and strengthening of our faith. But it is never God’s will that we be tempted to sin. The temptation to sin never comes from God; it comes only from our own sinful desires.
Sometimes Christians are overcome by temptation and fall into sin. Often they try to blame God for their sin; they say, “God tempted me, and I fell.” But we must never think such a thing. God never tempts anyone to sin.
Therefore, as we read this chapter, we must keep in mind that James is talking about two different things. First, he talks about trials, which arise from our outward circumstances (verses 2-3,12). Second, here in verses 13-14, he talks about temptations to sin, which arise from evil desires within us. God allows the outward trials to come in order to test and strengthen our faith. The inward temptations, however, never come from God. For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone (verse 13). The outward trials we must endure; the inward temptations we must overcome.
15 All Christians from time to time experience various temptations, that is, evil thoughts and desires (see 2 Corinthians 10:5 and comment). If we immediately throw them off, we will not fall into sin. But if we allow any one of these evil thoughts and desires to take root and grow, it will quickly result in sin—that is, it gives birth to sin. Even if these thoughts and desires do not lead to actual evil behavior, the thoughts and desires themselves will become sins if they remain in our minds and hearts. And the result of sin is death. Sin leads men to eternal death (see Romans 6:23; Galatians 6:7-8).
16-17 Don’t be deceived. God never draws men to do evil. He only draws men to do good. For those who love God, everything He does is for their benefit (Romans 8:28). Every gift that God gives is good and perfect. And every good and perfect gift is from God.
James here calls God the Father of heavenly lights. He means that God is the creator of the sun, moon, and stars. But God Himself is not like these “heavenly lights,” which keep changing between day and night. God’s light always shines; in Him there is no darkness (John 8:12; 1 John 1:5).
18 He (God) chose to give us birth. That is, by His will He created us. By His will He chose us to be in His family (see Ephesians 1:4-5). To be a Christian—that is, to have faith in Jesus—means to be born anew into God’s family (see John 1:12; 3:3). In other words, it means to become a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).
God created us through the word of truth. The word of truth can mean Jesus Christ Himself (John 1:1-3); or it can mean the Gospel of Christ (1 Peter 1:23). Both meanings are true.
Why did God give us birth into His family? He did this so that we might be a kind of firstfruits. Christ Himself was the firstfruits among believers (1 Corinthians 15:20,23). Believers, by the same analogy, are the firstfruits of all that God created. According to the Old Testament law, the Jews were required to offer to God the firstfruits of their harvest each year (Numbers 18:12). That fruit was considered to be best of all. Therefore, among men, Christians are to be like firstfruits offered to God—the best of the harvest. Such an offering is pleasing to God.
Listening and Doing (1:19-27)
19 We should be always quick—ready and eager—to listen to God, to His word, and to each other. The man who is always talking and seldom listening is a proud man. He gives no regard to the thoughts of others.
We should be slow to speak; that is, before we speak we should first think about what we are going to say. Before speaking we should ask ourselves three questions: Is what we are about to say true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? If it’s true, kind, and necessary, then let us say it. If not, then let us keep silent.
In addition to being slow to speak, we should also be slow to become angry. Tobe angry is not always a sin (Ephesians 4:26). For example, it is not a sin to be angry against wrongdoing (see Mark 11:15-17). However, it is a sin to “blow up,” to lose one’s temper. We must not become angry quickly. Before we allow our anger to rise up, we must be sure whether what we are getting angry at is truly evil or not. Our anger must be God’s anger, not our own human anger. Our anger must never be personal; we must never desire vengeance. We must be angry with sin, but never with the sinner; otherwise, we ourselves will be sinning.
20 Human anger is never righteous. Human anger is directed against people, not against their actions. Human anger is selfish. Human anger arises because man’s interests are being threatened, not because God’s interests are being threatened. Human anger is for man’s sake, not for God’s sake. That is why man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent. Here James repeats the admonitions that Paul and Peter have frequently given in their letters (see Ephesians 4:22,31; 5:3; 1 Peter 2:1 and comments).
The word of God has been planted in us (see 1 Peter 1:23). We need to believe it, accept it, study it, nurture it. If God’s word grows within us, it will save us. However, if we allow God’s word in us to die, it will not save us (see Mark 4:14-20).
22 In verse 19, James wrote: Everyone should be quick to listen. But it is not enough only to listen to God’s word. We must also obey it. We are not saved by listening; we are saved by believing. And true believing always includes obedience (see James 2:14,17).
Many people hear God’s word and say, “What a pleasing word!” But even though they read God’s word and like it, if they don’t obey it, it will do them no good. In fact, they will be judged by it. People who don’t obey God’s word do not have true faith; they only deceive themselves.
23-24 Here God’s word is compared to a mirror. When we look in a mirror, we see our true face, our true self; that is, we see our sinful nature. God’s word, like a mirror, shows us our sin. But if we only listen to His word without heeding it, we will be like a man who looks into a mirror, sees his sin, and then immediately turns away and forgets about it. Let us not turn away from the “mirror” quickly. Rather let us heed what the mirror shows us—and then do something about it. We will need to wash our face! We will need to get rid of the sin that we see in the mirror.
25 Here James talks about the man who looks intently into the mirror—that is, who looks intently into the perfect law. The perfect law is Christ’s word, Christ’s GOSPEL. The Gospel is the power of God for man’s salvation (Romans 1:16). Therefore, the perfect law, Christ’s Gospel, gives freedom, because it frees us from sin and its punishment, which is death.
The man who looks intently into the perfect law—God’s word, the Gospel—does not forget it; rather, he heeds it and obeys it. Such a man will be blessed not only in this life but also in the next.
26 Many people suppose that they are religious; but, in fact, they are religious only outwardly. Inwardly there is much evil in their hearts; therefore, when they speak, evil comes out in their words. Such people are not truly religious.
One of the main signs of a truly religious person is that he can control his tongue. True religion gives one the power to control one’s tongue; false or outward religion cannot give that power. Such a religion is worthless.
Among Christians the commonest and most destructive sins are sins ofthe tongue, especially when we use our tongues to criticize and judge each other (see James 3:6,8). Jesus Himself taught how important our words are to God. Jesus said: “I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).
27 A pure and faultless religion—that is, true religion—is this: first, to do works of love, such as caring for orphans and widows; and second, to keep oneself pure, to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (see James 4:4). In short, a pure life and a loving heart is proof that our religion is true.