Thoughts on James 1

James 1  •  22 min. read  •  grade level: 7
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THE epistle is addressed to the twelve tribes. The nation is seen as not yet finally rejected by God. James writes to those of the dispersion, that is, to the Jews scattered abroad among the Gentiles. Faith recognized the whole nation, as Elijah (1 Kings 18:3131And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the Lord came, saying, Israel shall be thy name: (1 Kings 18:31)), and as Paul (Acts 26:77Unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come. For which hope's sake, king Agrippa, I am accused of the Jews. (Acts 26:7)) did. Faith recognized it until the judgment of God should be accomplished. In order to understand the counsels and intentions of God, His assembly, the glory of Christ, and our position now in Him, we must read the writings of Paul.
Here the patience of God towards His ancient people manifests itself, although James warns them that the Judge stands before the door. He makes a distinction, too, in the case of believers (2: 1), although not yet separated from the people; but their privileges are not mentioned. These they could not enjoy in the company of unbelieving Jews. But they could display in their midst the difference of the Christian life; and it is of this that James speaks. He does not call himself an apostle, though practically-not established as an elder, but in virtue of his personal influence-the head of those Christians who had not separated from Judaism. His thoughts are ever of them, and of the walk that becomes them in the midst of the nation. Peter, who writes to a part of the scattered Jews, does not speak of the nation, but calls believers the nation, and that in the midst of Gentiles (1 Peter 2:10,1110Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy. 11Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; (1 Peter 2:10‑11)). But James portrays the Christian walk as one that does not surpass what ought to have been found in the faithful of the old dispensation.
It is apparent that he thought of Christians, but of Christians on the lowest step of the ladder that reaches up to heaven. But since as a fact we are on the earth, this epistle is most useful in marking the path and the spirit that ought to characterize our walk, no matter how great our heavenly privileges may be. If the light of our hearts be above, a lantern for our feet is not to be despised, and the more so because we are in the midst of a people professing Christianity, and calling themselves believers. The epistle puts the truth of this profession to the test.
Whatever might be the association of these Christians with the people, the author of the epistle supposes faith in those whom he addresses; a faith, however, that might practically have been found in a Jew before believing in Jesus; still, with the addition of this belief, a true faith, produced by the work of God in the heart. As Paul himself, after descending from the height of the revelations accorded to him by God, recognizes the faith of Lois and Eunice, and likens the faith of Timothy to that of these women.
But to examine the Epistle itself. Already at the outset, " temptations " were the proof of faith, the discipline of God in favor of believers (vers. 2, 12). As to position, they were associated with the people; and the object the writer had in view was the profession of the faith and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. We shall see that he apostrophizes those with whom they were united, warning believers against the spirit in which they walked.
The Christian Jews were proved, persecuted. This also is what Peter speaks of in his epistle, encouraging them to endure with patience. James (like Paul, in Rom. 5) exhorts them to count it all joy when they fall into divers temptations, and this for the same reason as that given by Paul. The trial of faith works patience. The will of man is broken; he has to await the operation of God; and learns his dependence on Him, and that he lives amid a scene where God only can produce the effect he desires, the conquest of the power of Satan. We may frequently desire (even when doing what is right) that the work might be hastened, that difficulties might disappear, and that we might be delivered from persecution; but it is God's will that is good and wise, and not ours. The works that are done on the earth are wrought by Him.. Patience is the perfect fruit of obedience.
Turn to what is said in Col. 1:1111Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness; (Colossians 1:11): " Strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power (what noble work should such power accomplish!), unto all patience and long-suffering with joyfulness." This is what is necessary to endure all without murmuring, and even with joy, since all comes from the hand of God. It is His will that sustains the heart, not our own.
When the love of God is known, and the will broken, there is confidence in God; we know that all comes from Him, and that He makes all things work together for our greatest blessing. Thus the trial of faith works patience; but patience must have her perfect work, or self-will and confidence in self instead of in God, will be manifested. These work without God, and apart from His will; we cannot wait on Him; or in any case, impatience and the flesh show themselves in us. Job submitted for a long time, but patience had not her perfect work in him. Saul waited a long time for Samuel, but, not resting quietly till he came, lost the kingdom. He did not wait on the Lord with the feeling that he could do nothing without Him, and with his own will. Patience had not her perfect work.
Now affliction is the trial of patience, the operation of God that acts for us outwardly, and in us by His grace; and when this work is accomplished, and we are perfectly submissive to God, and desire nothing apart from His will, we are perfect and entire, wanting nothing. Not that we have not to learn as to the knowledge of His will; the contrary is stated in the following verse (5); but the state of soul is perfect as to the will, as to our relationship with God; and He can then reveal His will, the only thing that we desire (see 1 Peter 1:6,76Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: 7That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ: (1 Peter 1:6‑7)).
In the Lord patience had her perfect work. The afflictions which He experienced in the world, He felt profoundly, and that more so than we do. He could weep over Jerusalem, and in view of the power of death, over the hearts of men; and the rejection of His love was a perpetual cause of sorrow to Him. He upbraids the cities wherein most of His mighty works had been done, but is perfect in His patience. " At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank Thee, 0 Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Thy sight" (Matt. 11) He upbraids, but at the same time gives thanks. The same thing may be seen in John 12 In both cases, His soul being perfectly in subjection to the will of His Father, expands with joy in the view of all that was the effect of His submission. Christ never failed of the wisdom of God. In us it is very possible that this may be wanting, even when the will is in subjection, and we desire to do the will of God.
The promise then follows that, " if any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him" The absence of will, obedience, and the spirit of confidence in depending on and looking to God, characterize the new life. In the world we pass through tribulations; but this life is manifested in these qualities. But confidence must be exercised, or we can receive nothing. To distrust God is to dishonor Him. Such a man is double-minded, and like a wave of the sea, driven of the wind and tossed. He is unstable, because his heart is not in communion with the Lord; he does not live in a way to be able to know Him; and naturally, such an one is unstable. If a believer dwells with God, in nearness to Him, he knows Him, and understands His will; he will have none of his own; and will not desire to have any, not only from obedience, but because he has more confidence in the thoughts of God about him than he has in his own will.
Faith in the goodness of God gives courage to seek and to do His will. In Christ Himself we have a perfect and lovely example of the principles of divine life. Tempted by Satan, He has no will of His own, and is not moved; but declares that "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God." This is absolute and perfect obedience. The will of God was for Him not only the rule, but the only spring of action. Then, when the tempter desires Him to throw Himself from the temple in order to see if God would be true to His promises, Jesus will not consent. He is certain about it already, and waits quietly for the strength of God, when the opportunity shall present itself in the way of His will. This faith and this confidence, is the proof that the soul is in nearness to God, and that it dwells in intimacy and communion with Him. Such an one will know what it is to have the assurance that God hears his requests. This is what fashions the soul in the difficulties and trials of the present life, so that it can exclaim, "Blessed is the man that endureth temptation."
Verses 9-11 are a kind of parenthesis. Though the new man belongs to the new creation, and is the first-fruits of it, yet here below he is in a world the glory of which passes away as the flower of the grass. Thus the brother of low estate is raised to communion with Christ, to the participation of His glory. And also in the world, no matter, how obscure his origin, he becomes the companion of all the brethren. "God hath chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which He hath promised to them that love Him." The rich own them as brothers, and meet at the Lord's table, as possessors of the same privileges. On the other hand, the rich man, if faithful, cannot walk in the greatness and splendor of a world that has rejected the Lord. He becomes-for God has made him so-brother to the poor one who loves the Lord; together they enjoy the communion of the Spirit, and share the most precious things of life.
They rejoice together, and the poor in his exaltation. Christ is not ashamed to call him brother. And in this title the rich glories far more than in all those that belong to him in the world. In the world this title is despised and counted as nothing. But he knows that the honor of this world passes away as the flower of the grass, and he rejoices in being the companion of those whom the Lord of glory owns as His. The world will fade away, and the spirit of the world is already gone for the heart of the spiritual Christian. He who takes the lowest place shall be great in the kingdom of God.
All this is very far from the spirit of jealousy and envy that would pull down all that is above us.
It is not selfishness, but the spirit of love that comes down to walk with the lowly, who are not of small esteem in God's eyes, as Christ, who certainly had the right to govern, and be the first, came down to be with us, and made Himself a servant among His disciples. For us the glory of this world is nothing but vanity and mockery. Love delights to serve, selfishness to be served.
The apostle returns to the character of the new man, for whom the life here below is a time of trial. He is happy when he passes through temptations, enduring them with patience. This is the normal state of' the Christian (1 Peter 4:1212Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: (1 Peter 4:12)). The desert is his pathway; patience here and glory afterward, his vocation. Tempted here, he remains faithful and steadfast by grace in tribulation and trial, afterward to inherit the crown of life that God bath promised to all them that love Him. Life that has not trials is not life; but he who is tried is blessed.
Our life is not here below, though we are traversing the desert. We are on the journey, not entered into the rest, the promised life in Christ.
In order that this life may be manifested, the affections must be set on the crown and the promised blessings. When we have the life of Christ in us, we ought to be exercised to have the heart detached from the things that surround us, and perpetually attract the attention of the flesh; so that we may not yield to them, but, ever resisting, the heart may be preserved by grace habitually in the way of holiness, enjoying heavenly things and communion with God. Now, trials endured with patience aid much in this object. A heart weaned from vanity is an. immense gain for the soul. If the world is dry and barren to it it turns the more readily to the fountain of living waters.
There is another sense in which the word "temptation" is used. It is true that it always means trial; but that other kind of trial which springs from within-lust-is an entirely different thing. God may try us from without, in order to bless us; and He does so, as in the case of Abraham; but He is not in any wise the author of lust. When it is a case of sin, not of putting obedience and patience to the test, it is still on account of the state of the soul, so that it may be corrected, and enabled to make progress; but when lust is stirred up, we cannot say that it is God who tempts us. "For God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth He any man; but every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed."
Christ Himself was tried by God in all His path, but the only result was a sweet smelling savor. Being come to do the will of His Father, He learned what obedience meant in this world of sin and enmity against God. Satan desired that his own will might be manifested in Him; but in vain. It is true that He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil; but it was to conquer for us who were subjected by sin to his power. There was no lust in Him; but He could be, and was, hungry Jesus having been declared the Son of God by the voice from the Father, Satan in proposing to Him to command the stones to become bread, desires Him to abandon the position of a servant, which He had taken on Him in becoming man, and do His own will. Here we have a temptation of the enemy. The Lord remains in His perfection, and lives by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. He is put to the test by God through sufferings; but no lust existed in Him. When Satan seeks to take advantage of His hunger-a need without sin, which even Christ had-He remains firm in perfect obedience, knowing no motive of action save His Father's will. With us there are temptations that come from within, from lust; but these are altogether distinct from the trials that come from without, which prove the state of the heart, and subdue self- will when we are not perfectly subject to the will of God, when other motives direct the heart.
James is always practical, and does not investigate the root of everything in the heart, as Paul does. He gives lust as the source from which actual sin springs. Paul shows that the sin of nature is the source of lust; an important distinction, which illustrates the object of the Holy Ghost in the Epistle of James, namely, the outward and practical life, as the evidence of the character of the life which owes its origin to the Word of God working, by faith. For James, lust-the first movement of a sinful nature, discovering its character-having conceived, brings forth sin, and sin, when it is finished, brings forth death. Such is the history of the operation of natural evil. James takes up its effect, Paul its source, so that we may know ourselves (Rom. 7:88But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. (Romans 7:8)).
Then, in opposition to lust, and showing the action of God, not to tempt, but on the contrary to produce good, James tells us that " every good gift, and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of His own will begat He us (believers) with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of His creatures" (vers. 17, 18). He owns, as I have said, grace as the alone and divine spring of good in us; and that as born of God through faith, because it is by the word of truth. By this we are regenerated, and receive a new life, and that by the will of God. We belong to the new creation, and are the first-fruits of it. This is deepest blessing, true not only of a new position, though it is such, but of a new nature, which renders us capable of enjoying God. It does not speak of justice by grace, but of a nature altogether new, and that comes from God.
Thus we are exhorted-self-will being broken, and confidence in the flesh being destroyed-to take the place of receiving everything by grace; to listen rather than to speak; to be slow to wrath, which is only the impatience of the old man, for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. The man taught of God is subject to Him. Laying aside all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, he receives with meekness the engrafted word. This is an important step, for it reveals the state of the man of God, and what influences him. The will of the flesh does not work in him, neither self-will; he listens to what God says, receives His word with meekness, and submits to it; then God engrafts the word into his heart. It is not purely knowledge, but the truth of God, His word, that can save the soul; it is the seed of divine life, and forms it.
The word that sanctifies is engrafted in him, the plant is introduced by Him, the new man that can produce fruit for God. But it is necessary that this should be put in practice, that a man should be a doer, and not only a hearer of the word; otherwise he is like a man who beholds his natural face in a glass, and then, going away, forgets what manner of man he was. " But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed." Here we find an important expression, "the law of liberty." If I tell my child to stay quietly at home when he wants to go out, he may obey; but it is not a law of liberty; he gives up his will. But, if afterward, I say to him, " Go out where you like," he obeys; but this is a law of liberty, because his will and the law are at one, and go together.
For Jesus the law of God was a law of liberty. He came to do His Father's will, and desired nothing else. Blessed state! In Him was perfection, for us a blessed example. The law is a law of liberty when the will, the heart of man, all his desires, are perfectly in unison with the law imposed on him. In our case it is a law imposed by God, written on the heart. Thus with the new man it is as with the heart of Christ; he loves obedience and the will of God, because it is His will, and because he has a nature corresponding to what this will expresses. Since he is a partaker of the divine nature, he loves what God wills.
Verse 26, etc. But there is a sign of what exists in the heart which betrays more than anything else what is in us. This is the tongue. He who is able to govern his tongue is a perfect man, and is able to bridle the whole body. The appearance of religion, if the tongue be not bridled, is but a vain show; and the man professing it deceives his own heart. True religion shows itself by love in the heart, and by purity, keeping it unspotted from the world. It thinks of others, of those in distress, in need of protection, of care and of the support of love, such as orphans and widows. The heart truly religious, full of the love of God, thinks as He does who moves it, of misery, of weakness, and of need. This is the true Christian character.
The second feature of Christian life given by James is to be " unspotted from the world." The world is corrupted, lies in sin, has rejected the Savior, that is, God come in grace. It is not all that man was put out of the garden of Eden, because he was a sinner, that is true, and is sufficient for his condemnation. But there is yet more. God did much to restore him; He gave the promises to Abraham; called Israel to be
His people; sent the prophets, and at last His only begotten Son. God Himself came in grace; but on the part of man, He was driven from the world. Therefore, God had to say, "Now is the judgment of this world." The last thing He could do was to send His Son, and this He did. " Having yet, therefore, one son, His well-beloved, He sent Him also last unto them, saying, They will reverence my Son. But those husbandmen said among themselves, This is the heir; come let us kill him, and the inheritance shall be ours. And they took him, and killed him, and cast him out of the vineyard." (Mark 12)
The world is a world that has already rejected the Son of God. And where does it find its joy? In God or in Christ? No. In the pleasures of the flesh, in greatness, in riches, it seeks happiness without God, in order to avoid feeling His displeasure. It would not require to seek happiness in pleasure if it were really happy. Formed by God for Himself with the breath of life, man cannot be content with anything less than God. Read the history of Cain. He went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of the Nod. Then he built a city, and called it after his son Enoch. Then Jabal was father of such as dwell in tents, and had cattle, the wealth of that time. And the name of his brother was Jubal, the father of all such as handle the harp and organ; and Zillah bore also Tubal-cain, an instructor of every artificer of brass and iron.
Such is the world and all its civilization. Without God, the need is felt to make it pleasant and beautiful. One may say, " But where is the harm in harps and organs?" There is none, certainly; the evil is in the heart of man who uses these things for his enjoyment without God, in order to forget Him, to flee from Him, to seek contentment in a world of sin, so that he may not feel his misery, his distance from God, and to hide himself in the corruption that reigns there. The refinement with which man surrounds himself too often only makes him glide insensibly into the corruption, which he even endeavors to conceal beneath a cloak of gladness.
But the new man, born of God, and participating the divine nature, cannot find his delight in the world; he flees from that which shuts him out from God. Where flesh rejoices, and finds its pleasures, the spiritual life cannot find them. James speaks of corruption itself, but not as though a part were corrupt, and another pure. Corruption is there, and the Christian must keep himself unspotted from the world. The world is not pure; on the contrary, it is impure in its principles and in all its ways. He who is conformed to it is corrupt in his walk; the friendship of the world is enmity against God; and he who is the friend of the world is the enemy of God. It is necessary to keep unspotted from the world itself, and to go through it as epistles of Christ among men, pure from what surrounds us, as Christ was pure from the world that would not receive Him.