James is a book that has occasionally been subjected to theological snobbery. Even conservative scholars, while accepting its place in the canon of Scripture, have been guilty of treating the book as conveying only transitional arrangements which can now be ignored. However, it is undoubtedly relevant to 21st century life, and much can be learned from it.
James, the author of the epistle, and most likely the brother of the Lord Jesus, took up his pen to write to pressurised Jewish believers. Conditions were difficult for them in a world openly opposed to their Saviour. This letter, about basic Christianity, is fundamental, bringing pointed exhortation to the professing people of God. It provides both an arm of comfort, and an arm of correction. It counsels against thinking in the world's mindset, speaking in an uncontrolled way, living inconsistently with one professing faith, and exhibiting features that are carnal, not spiritual. This short series of articles will consider the main themes in the epistle, which may be conveniently divided and titled as follows:
Chapter 1 Trials and Temptations
Chapter 2 Partiality and Profession
Chapter 3 Teaching and Tongues
Chapter 4 Wars and Worldliness
Chapter 5 Riches and Recompense
Believers rightly hear warning ministry about present day lack of commitment to the truth, whether it is in relation to reception to the local assembly, or headship, or whatever other truth is under attack at any given time. Much of the decline is symptomatic of the fact that, just as in those early days, many believers are not living in the manner God expects. Temptations are not being resisted, Christianity is being exercised with partiality, teaching is often given without moral weight and authority, critical gossip is prevalent, believers are too often marked by materialism, and there is a lack of appreciation of the eternal. These are all subjects James deals with in his letter. The teaching is basic, but vital for the Lord's people in 2016. The letter seems to have been written at an early stage in New Testament history. There is no mention of Gentile believers, there are references to the synagogue, and the tone is one of fundamental teaching. However, these features can be explained by the fact that it was believers from a Jewish background who were affected by the dispersion (Acts 11.19), and who formed James's target audience.
Before considering individual chapters, it is instructive to observe the tone of the book. Even a quick reading of the letter will reveal the repeated use of "my brethren" or "my beloved brethren". Such titles are used at least 14 times in five chapters. James approaches his exhortation and encouragement on the basis of common relationship. Chapter 1 verse 18 is clear that each believer has life on the same basis, through the regenerating work of the Word of God, so not only does the relationship reflect a love and common concern for each other, but also common requirements for spiritual progress. There are at least two lessons to be learned from this. Firstly, James delivers pointed ministry in a loving way. It is perfectly Scriptural to bring the Word of God to bear on the individual and collective lives of the saints. However, it has to be done graciously, reflecting the common relationship as brethren in Christ. It is not acceptable to treat believers like enemies when teaching. The second point is this: the majority of the letter has exhortations that should be heeded by every brother and sister in Christ (as has been observed, it was on the basis of relationship that he taught and encouraged). Therefore, despite the letter being written to believers saved out of Judaism, it contains lessons for every child of God.
The first chapter may be divided thus: Verses 1-12, The Believer and Trial; Verses 13-21, The Believer and Temptation; Verses 22-27, The Believer and Truth.
Verses 1-12: The Believer and Trial
Verses 1-4: Patience and perfection in trial
In this first section, James encourages the saints in relation to difficulties that arise in the course of life. Trials, he teaches, are an inevitability. What is not inevitable, however, is understanding the purpose of such trials, and how believers should react to them. James gives guidance on these issues. When trials are all around, and saints are tested through difficulty, they should reckon it as a joyful thing in every way! They have not chosen to walk the way of trials, but trials are sent to prove them and bring them to mature spiritual development. Believers may also have to endure suffering in order to manifest the character of Christ, and to glorify God. God graciously provides a reward for patiently enduring trial. That seems to be the point of verse 3; that faith being proved and borne out in the trial experimentally demonstrates patience and endurance. Saints can then count it a joy to glorify Christ. Verse 4 teaches that the overarching purpose of a trial is to see Christ-likeness developed in the believer. Sadly, however, history shows that trials are no guarantee of Christ-likeness. When James speaks about perfection as an outcome of the trial, it is in the sense of full development or maturity. The purpose of the trial is to form godly character, and that remains true today for the people of God.
Verses 5-8: Prayer in trial
As verse 5 makes clear, believers will not naturally have the answers and wisdom to cope with the trial. However, they need not struggle through it alone. If there is recognition of personal lack, let God's help be sought. God will bestow the required wisdom. He will not scold or reject the genuinely weary and dependent saint. Have requests been made for wisdom in order to be patient in, and cope with, circumstances today? His strength is still made perfect in weakness! He will give the necessary wisdom for the trial. Whatever the crisis, let saints be reliant on Him, for there is no lack of resource with God. However, wisdom is conditional on faith being exercised (v 6). Those who doubt cannot expect God to help, although He retains His sovereign prerogative to do so. The example of the doubter being like a wave in the sea seems to suggest that he is passive, being controlled by his doubt and the adverse circumstances. A doubting man is driven by circumstances, because he has not the faith to apprehend God's greatness. Verse 8 seems to imply that such a man may be a 'double-souled' man. The soul generally speaks of desires, and James may be referring to the difficulty of divided affections; a subject to which he later returns. Put briefly, if in good times, faith, affection and life is not centred on God, then things will not be what they should be during a trial.
Verses 9-11: Praise in trial
The dispersion most probably led to loss of material wealth for many believers, and James does not condemn riches. If a man is given material riches he ought to humbly rejoice, and give God thanks. However, if riches are lost, that presents a big issue, with practical effects. But that man can still similarly rejoice, because his life is going to fade away as quickly as does the grass that grows under the heat of the sun, and is eventually burnt up by the same heat. In like manner, riches and all connected with them will fade. In other words, believers should rejoice in whatever circumstances they are found, knowing that God will bring them through trials in order to bring glory to Himself, by bringing the character of His children into conformity to Christ. The Christ-like man will also find his joy in eternal pursuits, rather than those associated with riches that are soon to disappear.
Verse 12: Promise in trial
The victor's crown of life is a reward associated with the pursuit and enjoyment of eternal life. Here it is promised to those who endure trial, resulting in spiritual maturity and development of character. James teaches that endurance in trial is an evidence of salvation, which should provide reassurance to the Lord's people. Those who love Him will endure, because their affections are set on Him.
(To be continued …)