Notes on James

James 1‑5  •  14 min. read  •  grade level: 6
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James addresses his Epistle to the twelve tribes of Israel; but at the same time that he owns the people beloved because of the fathers, he places himself on the ground of faith: “James a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.”
At the time when this epistle was written, the gospel, preached first in Judea, bad had among the Jews very great results. Numerous churches had been formed; many myriads of Jews had believed (Acts 21:2020And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: (Acts 21:20)); a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:77And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7).) In those days of beginning, the believers from among the Jews still took part in the old order of things. They, were all zealous for the law; and there were even some of them who offered sacrifices. Jerusalem on its side occupied a very particular position; it was under a new responsibility by the fact of the introduction of Christianity and the deposit of faith granted to the holy city at the starting-point of the gospel. But this privilege, too little appreciated by her children, was going shortly to pass from their hands into those of the Gentiles. It is in the midst of these different elements that James, whilst having in view principally the believers, addresses nevertheless his epistle to the twelve tribes, to all Israel, giving them this last warning before God should detach the church from the Jewish system.
James does not at all advance toward Israel like Paul, who, soon in collision with the synagogue, separated from it the disciples and pursued far from it the work of the gospel in favor of the Gentiles. There is even a difference to remark between the two apostles of the circumcision, Peter and James, in the manner of regarding Israel in their epistles. Peter is occupied specially with the faithful remnant, and he finds it in those of the Jews who had received faith; he sees Israel only in the remnant; whilst James embraces the people in its totality. The faithful which is found there comprised is the living part of it doubtless, that in which evangelical truths, the great truths of faith and life, have their reality; but it is to the address of all the people that James writes. He sees this people under the favor of the promises of God then presented by the gospel.
As to doctrine the Epistle of James presents as much as another the great truths of the gospel of God; but it is limited to the first elements. One does not find there the truth developed as would be the case in an epistle of Paul. Notwithstanding it does not follow from this that the things said in the Epistle of James are of an authority less absolute. What for example more absolute than this declaration, “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”
In reading these first notions of the gospel, we are astonished not to find there all that which the Spirit of adoption has revealed to us; but we say that these developments are not the subject of the epistle, and that besides the state of those for whom it was written did not admit of them. But if it does not show all the riches of the revelation of the gospel, it is at least very useful as a girdle of righteousness, as a voice of warning which keeps the conscience awakened. It wishes that the faith and the life of the Christian should be proved by their effects in the eyes of men. When one understands the position of Christians in the midst of the Jews at the moment when the Christian's form was not at all marked out, the Epistle of James is sufficiently simple.
The level that it keeps is that which might have been the moral state of the faithful of all ages: God being known of them according to His, eternal truth, whether without or above the particular characteristics that His different revelations have imprinted on them. The economies have differed one from another; they have successively put in evidence different characteristics of God; but God Himself does not change.
I. Verses 2-15. From the beginning James abases man. He puts him in a position of dependence toward God; he sees him submitted to the trial of faith. But trial produces its effects; it brings the fruit of patience; it leads to the prayer of faith; it makes a lowly condition loved; and, as a last result, it renders worthy of the crown of life promised of God to those that love Him.
Verse 4. “But let patience have her perfect work.” Patience sustains for one to wait according to God for the issue of the trial, without, taking the shortest way that the flesh teaches. Saul, for example, could not wait patiently.
Verse 5, “Let him ask of God.” When trial comes, the first resource of the Christian, as also the first movement of the new man, is prayer. And God always hears the prayers of His saints. Thus strengthened from on high, the Christian is capable of passing through trial in the spirit of obedience. Christ in Gethsemane prayed before finding Himself in difficulty; afterward, obedient, He took the cup from the hand of His Father. If we neglect prayer and difficulties catch us at unawares, we enter into temptation and we fall. At the moment when he should have prayed, Peter slept; when he should have submitted, he drew the sword; and when he ought to have confessed Jesus, he denied Him.
“And upbraideth not:” God gives without upbraiding our state.
Verse 6. “But let him ask in faith.” God loves that it should be in a spirit of confidence in His goodness, that we send up our prayers to Him.
Verses 9-11. A lowly condition is the only one in this world in which God will meet us.
Verses 12-15. Trial (temptation) may come to us from two sources. It comes from God when the heart or faith is put to the proof. “God did tempt Abraham.” It came from the adversary when it came by lust, when the flesh is enticed. How much sweeter it is to have to do with God than with Satan in trial!
Whoever knows himself will offer up this prayer, “Lead us not into temptation.” And may the grace of God work in us in order that we may have no need to be sifted by Satan to be stript of our pretensions! When Jesus prayed in favor of Peter, whom He knew to be confident in himself, He did not at all ask that His disciple should escape the sifting of the enemy; He only asked that his faith should not fail.
Verse 15. “When lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin.” Paul said inversely, in the Epistle to the Romans (chap. 7:8) that it is sin which produces all manner of lust. The difference between these two declarations is this: Paul keeps himself to the spiritual principles, whilst James would look at their effects. The one completes the other. The sin which is in the nature produces the lust (Rom. 7); and the lust produces the sin in the conduct of the man. (James 1)
Verses 16-18. Thus the Epistle of James, while it owns faith in Jesus (chap. ii. 1) owns also the new birth by the mighty grace of God: two fundamental truths of the gospel.
“That we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” God will reconcile all things to Himself; His creation, and His elect. And we, begotten by the Father, are the firstfruits of this reconciled creation. In a sense Adam would have been, after his sin, the firstfruits of fallen creation.
Verses 19-27. Patience, and obedience are two practical graces, two of the perfect gifts that the Father gives and that He wishes to see developed in us. The new life is ever dependent: too much energy or too little is worth nothing. The moment that one's own will is manifested, that man wills, it is sin.
Verse 24. “The engrafted word.” Just as a graft becomes an integral part of the subject in which it is put, the word becomes in the Christian a portion of himself. It is not thus with a law which is always a commandment outside of us. That the word produces effects in us, does not at all destroy its authority over us—an authority which is that of God. The word edifies, commands or condemns, according to the case.
Verse 25. “The perfect law of liberty.” In the Epistle of James the divine nature in us is always seen in perfect conformity with the law of God. This nature loves what God commands. When it is found that he to whom the commandment is addressed has already the desire to do the thing commanded, he does at the same time what he loves and what is commanded him. Such is the law of liberty; as we see its example in Christ. If one had wished to restrain His liberty, He must have been hindered from obeying. Just so is it with the divine nature in the Christian. It is always free, that is to say always ready to do the will of God. The conflict of the Christian does not destroy this truth. The principle in the case is this: “I can do all through Christ that strengtheneth me.”
Three laws are mentioned in the Epistle of James: 1st, the law of Moses (chap. 2: 10, 11); 2nd, the royal law which consists in loving one's neighbor (chap. 2: 8); and 3rd, the perfect law of liberty (chap. 1: 25; 2: 12). These two latter approach each other.
Verse 26. “And bridleth not his tongue.” The tongue is that which makes known most promptly the state of the soul. When a man keeps himself in the presence of God, it does not happen that the word is evil or too abundant. “The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” (Hab. 2:2020But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him. (Habakkuk 2:20).)
Verse 27. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father” —always submission to God. In this position life is manifested, selfishness disappears, and one is kept pure from the defilements of this world.
II. Verses 1-13. It is perfectly useless to pretend to know the Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ, Loan of glory, when the conduct does not answer to this confession. Here as in the course of this epistle James thunders against the spirit of this world. Human greatness, the enticements of wealth, distinction of persons, the despising of the poor, all this agrees not with the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ; “for God hath chosen the poor as to the world, rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom.” Nevertheless James does by no means level all ranks. What he demands is that one should have no preference for the rich. By the mere fact of his position the latter may find wants more numerous; but it is needful to distinguish those wants when they are real; tendencies to show oneself rich, to do the grand, &c.
Verse 12. “Judged by the law of liberty,” that is, according to the nature which has been communicated to us. This nature is holy. We ought, conformably to this nature, to speak and act holily, and also to judge ourselves. Woo to him who, to excuse evil, should say,
“I do that which I would not,” for though the flesh is in us, we are not its debtors.
Verses 14-26. Faith is shown by its fruits. James demands the proofs of the faith that one professes, and the answer, if there is faith ought to be, “Look at the fruits.” This expression “Show me” is the key of the subject: You say, I am a Christian. It is well; but I cannot see faith in your heart: show it me by your works.
The works James demands as proof of faith are not those that they call good works. He demands works of faith, works such as those of Abraham and of Rahab. To put a son to death, to renounce one's country, is not what one would call good works; and nevertheless they were works of faith: Abraham, in obeying the order he had received to sacrifice his only son, believed that he would have equally the numerous posterity promised of God. Rahab believed that the Canaanites were cursed, that God had given the land to Israel, and she joined herself with the destinies of the people of God. These works which prove faith, are acts in which the flesh is for nothing.
Verses 1-12. A new form in which James touches the pride of man to combat it—seeking to appear by fine discourses, speaking without reserve, use things which do not agree with the respect which is due to our God and Father.
Verse 1. If in the habitual life there is evil in not keeping the tongue in check, there is also in the itching to speak before the assembly. “Be not many masters” [teachers].
Verse 2. “If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man;” for the tongue is in man the swiftest instrument for the service of good or ill; it reveals the state of the soul. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.”
Verses 13-18. The wise and intelligent man will be shown, not by words, but by a good conversation with meekness and wisdom; he will show himself modest without hypocrisy, sowing in peace the fruit of righteousness.
There is a wisdom which is not of God, a wisdom which lies in the intelligence of man; a wisdom earthly, sensual, devilish, which lies to the gospel in that it pretends to belong to it. But the wisdom of God is first pure, then peaceable. It is the effect of the word when it is received; it renders us pure and peaceable.
“The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace.” Christ has done the will of God spontaneously, without experiencing inward resistance. It is not that He was insensible to the suffering which resulted from fidelity. This suffering He felt, but it did not at all hinder the movement of His soul from being obedience itself. We too, though we feel grief, whether in persecution or in the different evils which touch us, ought to do the will of God without inward conflicts, and this would be if our heart were quite weaned from the elements of this world.
Verses 1-10, opposed to lust. The apostle had just been saying that the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace; now lust is the enemy of peace. It brings disturbance among the saints and in the relations they have with God. They pray, but God does not hear. Nor is there (ver. 4) agreement between the love of the world and the love of God: the one kills the other.
It is God who gives (ver. 6); but He gives to whom He will—to the humble.
Would you avoid the danger and the evil of lust? Humble yourselves, submit yourselves to God, resist the devil, draw near to God, purify your conduct, feel your state. All these things which wound the pride of the flesh are suited to maintain, you in a true state, in the presence of the Lord who will exalt you, when this can be without danger.
Vers. 13-17. Dependence and submission toward God are anew recalled to us. It does not become us to choose our ways. To do so is to forget the authority of the Lord, to obey our lusts, and to act in a spirit of boasting.
V. Verses 1-6. Censure more for the rich. James recalls first the oppression by great people; but, what is remarkable, is to see him identify the persons who pursue riches with those who condemned and slew the righteous One.
Verses 7-9. The Lord is coming. Waiting for Him keeps the heart from the love of riches. We must wait patiently and live in peace.
Verses 10-20. Different consolations and exhortations follow. Those who have suffered by the will of God are now happy. We must then, if we suffer, follow them—suffer patiently.
God in His government afflicts sometimes by sickness: there must be self-judgment. But He hears the prayers of the saints, He pardons and heals. (Vers. 14 -16.) The prayer of the righteous man is of great efficacy: Elias gives us the proof. (Vers. 17, 18.) The love of souls is of great price: to recall a soul from his wandering is to save him from death. It is to cover a multitude of sins, and to what God is doing. (Vers. 19, 20.)