While this isn't the place for a full commentary or anything like it, let's start with a couple of introductory matters. The author was a deeply committed Jew (James was the half-brother of Jesus) who spent his Christian life ministering in Jerusalem. The audience consisted of Jewish Christians in the dispersion, which leads us to the idea that this must be a very early book. But the most important introductory observation we can make is one of genre. It is not, strictly speaking, an epistle. It is, rather, wisdom literature. On this issue, most commentators agree. To put it another way, James in the NT's Proverbs.
Wisdom (Gk. sophia, Heb. Hakma (adj "wise", Heb. Hakam)) for the Jews is understood as skill in living. A wise person is one who knows how to react in any given situation and consistently does so. This is set against the fool, who has no understanding of right from wrong, sin or righteousness. And between these two extremes is the simple person, who is neither wise nor the fool.
The purpose of James, then, is simple: to lead a Christian to wisdom, that is, to be able to properly live out the Christian life.
But it is here we encounter another common misunderstanding. Contrary to popular belief, James does not give us a list of rules to follow by which we may live out Christianity. Against this, to live out Christianity, one must be wise, but in order to be wise, James offers only ONE means: to "ask God, who gives generously to all, without finding fault" (James 1:5). Wisdom is not learned, nor earned. It is received by faith (James 1:6). Thus, from the beginning, James makes sure his readers do not take the rest of his book as a list of works one is to do if he is to please God.
Now, the context of this means--the requesting of God--is instructive. James 1:2-4 says, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (NIV). Notice, first, that trials produce perseverance, and perseverance produces maturity that lacks nothing. But the very next verse says that if we do lack something, namely, wisdom, that we are to ask of God. Thus, what an immature person lacks is wisdom. This becomes clearer when we properly translate the verse. The NIV has, for some reason I cannot fathom, translated the word peirasmos in verse 2 as "trials." But this is the same word that is used in verses 13-15 of the same chapter:
- When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
- My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations
With that setup, James comes to what I think is the most important verses in the book:
- My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.
If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
But notice what James says next in connection with this word. If we consider ourselves "religious"--that is, keeping the Word--and yet we don't "keep a tight reign on [our] tongue" then that religion is "worthless." But there is a religion that God accepts, which is "look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." James is equating religion with the Gospel. True Religion is Jesus' religion. It is true practice that God honors. It is, as James has already revealed, the practice of wisdom.
With this set, James launches into another unit that extends from chapter 2 to the middle of chapter 5. In this unit, he talks about various kinds of temptations we will face that will prevent us from practicing wisdom and thus having a righteous life. All of the sins he will discuss are ones he has already mentioned in the verses above. They are listed below:
2:1-13 - Favoritism and judgment (cf. 1:9-11)
2:14-26 - "lazy faith" (cf. 1:22-25)
3 - an evil tongue (cf. 1:26)
4:1-12 - Pride, leading to in-fighting (cf. 1:19-21)
4:13-17 - Boasting (cf. 1:9-11, 26)
5:1-12 - Hoarding and oppression (cf. 1:27)
As you can see, in each section, James elaborates on the various temptations that Christians face. Whether it is being judgmental and judging one another, being religious hypocrites, boasting, hoarding our treasures, oppressing the poor, etc., all of these things are rooted in self-exhaltation. In fact, James comments on this in 3:13-18:
- Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
At the end of this, I want to talk about that word "righteousness" a bit, but for now, let's leave this and go back to the final unit of the book.
James 5:13-20 is the concluding unit of the book. Here, James presents the benefits of being wise. Namely, a close relationship with God in which our prayers accomplish much and freedom from the death that comes with sin. Thus, in summaton of the book, can be said this way:
1. In James 1, he gives us an overview of wisdom;
2. In James 2:1-5:12, he gives us warnings against the temptations that keep us from practicing wisdom;
3. In James 5:13-20, he gives us the benefits of wisdom.
There you have it, a sustained argument. But let's take that implications to two controversial passages and show how it greatly simplifies our understanding of them: 2:14ff and 3:1.
Starting with 3:1, we almost always take the command not to have many teachers as referring to "Bible teachers" or pastors or what have you. But that seems to go against the rest of the NT, doesn't it? For Jesus told us ALL to go out and teach and make disciples, and the author of Hebrews complains that his readers "ought to have been teachers" (Heb 5:12). So what does James mean?
Simple. He is not talking about teachers of doctrine. He is talking about teachers of wisdom, and this in a negative light. Remember in James 2:12-13 we are told to "Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful." And again, in 3:2, the very next verse of our exhortation, we are told that "we all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check". Notice that James is talking about behavior here. If I tell you to act one way, but I live in another, have I not judged you hypocritcally? Did Jesus not say that we ought not judge one another until we first get the log out of our own eye?
James, then, is not talking about teaching doctrine, but about judging one another and "teaching" them wisdom. Wisdom, remember, comes only from God. But rather than boasting about what is right and wrong, we should instead "show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom." In other words, righteousness is caught, not taught. It is not your nor my place to judge one another, but we, rather than boasting about our righteousness and "teaching" it to one another, are to live quiet lives of righteousness. That is the wisdom from above. Such wisdom leads us to maturity, and from that, we reap righteousness.
Which brings us to James 2:14ff. The word "righteous" is very important for this discussion. I want to suggest that my reading of James, as a whole, perfectly and with no difficulties at all harmonizes this difficult passage with both the rest of the book and with the NT.
We have seen consistently that "righteousness" is not talking about just "being saved." In EVERY instance of the word throughout the book so far, James has meant it in terms of moral uprightness or, more specifically, maturity in the faith before God. It is not the Christian whose prayers accomplish much, but the righteous man's who is. Righteousness, as we have seen, comes from practicing wisdom, which comes from God and received by faith. In short, James is talking about practical, not positional, righteousness. He is talking about the blamelessness of Noah, Job, Enoch, and other great saints of the OT.
Second, we established the practice of wisdom is equivelant to practicing the religion of Jesus (cf. 1:19-27). Thus, a wise person is a righteous person, and a righteous person is one who practices religion of which God approves. Thus, a righteous person is a genuinely religious person. But in that light, 2:14ff is easy to understand. If a man says he has faith but no works, what use is it? Such faith is worthless. Look, now, at the close comparison between these two verses:
- James 1:26 - If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.
James 2:20 - You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?
Remember that, for James, Christianity was not a separate religion. It was nothing more than the religion he had practiced since childhood, only now, his Messiah had come.
So, THE FAITH can save no one. But that goes exactly to what he had already said in 1:19-27. We don't just hear the Word. We don't just practice religion. We DO the Word. We practice true religion. The faith, by itself, does nothing. It is only the faith properly practiced that has any effect!
But what effect? We aren't talking about going to heaven. James, in this book, is completely and totally interested in the practice of wisdom to the end of which one may be complete, wise, and mature; or, in one word, RIGHTEOUS. We have seen that righteousness is not positional, but practical righteousness. Thus, James asks:
- Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (2:21-24)
Thus, in James 2:14ff, James has no interest in testing the validity of his readers' faith as far as their personal salvation goes. Far from it, he is asking if they have put it into practice in such a way that it can make them wise so that they may be declared righteous, a friend of God, the type of people whose prayers He will answer (like Elijah).
But, again, as a reminder, none of this is by works. For all the emphasis on practicing the faith, it takes wisdom, and we only get wisdom when we ask it of God in complete faith--no doubting. In short, we must rely on God and God alone. This comports perfectly with what Jesus says in John 15. If we abide in Him, then He WILL abide in us and we WILL bear fruit.
It seems to me that James is writing a very practical book in which he exhorts his readers to rejoice in their struggle with sins for the simple reason that this very struggle is the means by which we learn wisdom, and that wisdom, when practiced, is what leads to a righteous life, and that righteous life is what leads to a fulfilling relationship with God. If, though, we have trouble achieving that wisdom, we can submit to God and ask Him in full confidence for that wisdom, and He has promised (again) to live in and through us.
Please forgive the length. In any case, thoughts?