Today we read the letter of James to the “dispersion” (1:1). This refers to those scattered abroad outside of Israel. There is some debate over whether James is writing just to Jewish Christians, or to all Christians. It is believed that this James is the brother of Christ, who pastored the Jerusalem church, which means he would be ministering almost exclusively to Jewish Christians. This is likely the first book of the New testament written (sometime in the mid to late 40s A.D.). That means that there were no written Gospel accounts. The Gospel and its implications had only been communicated verbally to this point. That also means that what James doesn’t say about early Christianity here, he omits because it would be assumed by his readers.
The book is very practical, and is sometimes referred to as the “Proverbs of the New Testament.” And what would have been more practical than discussing the trials of the early church (1:2). James tells his readers that trials are used by God for good, producing steadfastness (v. 4), wisdom (v. 5), faith (vv. 6-7), and blessing (vv. 12). These are all for those who see with eternal eyes. And it is not God Who puts us through trials, but allows them to happen for our good (v. 13). They are usually born out of our own sin (vv. 14-15).
James then jumps right in to application of Christ’s work (which he assumes is known). Anger (vv. 19-20), filthiness and wickedness (v. 21) are contrary to the Word of God which is implanted in us. Note also that in the Apostolic age (like our own) it is the Word of God that has the power of salvation. And we know we have that salvation if we live out the implanted word (v. 22) in the liberty Christ has granted us through salvation (v. 25). Only now that Christ has saved us can we live righteously. Harsh words or deceit are not produced by a regenerate heart (as a general rule – v. 26). Rather, good works of mercy and holiness are produced (v. 27 – see Isa 1:17).
James then speaks of partiality, that is, honoring one over another according to earthly metrics, such as wealth (2:2-4). God has certainly no regard for these earthly matters (v. 5) so nether should Christians (v. 6). James then points to the second greatest commandment as the measure for holiness and pure religion (v. 8), which is opposed to partiality (v. 9). James then tells his readers that if they desire to live under the Law, they will be transgressors (vv. 10-11). But in Christ, our law is using the liberty He has granted us to do works of mercy (vv. 12-13).
James now returns to the idea of the necessary outworking of faith in good works. In particular, he remains focused on mercy (vv. 14-16). Faith that does not work itself out in such mercy is not saving faith (v. 17). In verse 18, James’s point is that there is no dichotomy here – both faith and works are present in a true Christian.
In verse 19, James famously asserts that faith is more than believing that God is. And while that is true, we cannot ignore what specifically James says we should believe about God: that He is One. James quotes the Shema (Deut 6:4-5), which Jesus said is part of the greatest commandment (see Mark 12:29-30). But why the mention of demons? And why mention this in the midst of his faith/works teaching? Because the demons – those false “gods” of the Old Testament – they know Who God is, the One and only true God of the universe – and they shudder because they know how the story ends. Because God is God, He will judge them for eternity. So too, believing in God Most High is good (v. 19), but useless without the works that result from true faith (v. 20).
When James speaks of Abraham’s and Rahab’s justification (v. 21 and 25), a better English word would be “vindicated.” Both had faith in God (v. 23), but both were vindicated – their faith was evidenced – through their works. If our works to not vindicate our salvation – if our works do not show evidence that we have been saved – then like a body without a spirit, our faith is dead (v. 26).
In chapter 3, James returns to how we use our words (see 1:26) God will judge us for our words (see Matt 12:37). This is why teaching the Word is a dangerous calling (3:1). James explains that the tongue (our words) are the most difficult parts of our body to control (v. 2, 8). In fact, how we use our words will often direct our actions (vv. 3-4) and cause the most trouble (vv. 5-6). Often, they reveal the duplicity of our hearts (vv. 9-12). James then calls for wisdom in verse 13 (implying that those of us whose tongues betray our fickle hearts are unwise). It is the jealousy and ambition he speaks of here that tend to reveal themselves in our words (v. 16). But we, as Christians, should be holy, peaceable, gentile, merciful, and impartial in our words and deeds (v. 17).
James then speaks of that duplicity in our hearts. We tend to have one foot in our Christianity and one foot in the world. That jealousy and selfish ambition (3:16) is what causes divisions among us (4:1), but even worse, it causes division within us (vv. 2-3). We cannot be friends with the world and God (v. 4). So, to overcome the world – and the devil! – we need only to submit to God (vv. 6-7). Drawing near to Him is how we become holy (v. 8 – see Ps 24:3-6).
And then James brings this back to our words. How do we submit to God? We keep our tongues from speaking evil (v. 11). To do otherwise is to exalt ourselves and make ourselves God (v. 12). How beautiful! In order to submit to God, James says that we need not do anything, but stop doing something. James, who insists that our faith is shown by our works, here tells us that it needs to be the right works. Sometimes, our faith is demonstrated by what we don’t do!
James then reminds his readers of the sovereignty of God. We should use our tongue to speak of His sovereignty (vv. 13-15). To speak of our own wants and plans is again to speak evil (v. 16). Again, there are both active works and passive works – things we should do and things we shouldn’t – and together doing/abstaining is what demonstrates our faith. Otherwise, we sin (v. 17).
James then gives a warning to “you rich” (5:1). This is not those with wealth, necessarily. It is those who treasure that wealth above the things of God. James calls their fancy clothing (v. 2) and their money (v. 3) rotten. These things have rotted the spirits of these men and women! They live according to their wealth, not according to God. The luxury they have on earth has turned them against their fellow man (vv. 4-6). And God is well aware of it all. Now remember who James is writing to: Christians! This is a warning for those whose treasure is on earth to repent and seek treasures in heaven. And James holds up those whose treasure is in heaven, which is demonstrated because they do not resist these rich who take advantage of them (v. 6). The works of others demonstrate the lack of faith of these rich men and women.
James then calls his readers to patience in this present age (v. 7). The end is near (v. 8), so Christians should live like it is (v. 9). Even in the face of suffering, we should live righteously, knowing that ultimately God has a purpose (vv. 10-11). And that righteousness begins with our words (v. 12).
James then exhorts the suffering to prayer (v. 13). He also exhorts the elders to pray for the sick (v. 14). I believe James is here speaking spiritually, not physically. The prayer of faith (v. 15) is a prayer for salvation. James calls us to confidence that these prayers will be answered and God will “raise up” the sick (he will be brought to life in Christ) and forgive his sins. That this is speaking spiritually is reinforced by verse 16, where the healing is certainly spiritual. Just as Elijah prayed for drought, and then rain, and God gave him what he prayed for, so God answers those who pray (vv. 17-18). There is power in prayer if it is done in true faith – a faith that results in righteousness (v. 16).
James ends his letter by exhorting mutual responsibility. Verses 19-20 go along with what precedes it. This is spiritual healing through the prayers and actions of the church. The saving of the souls from death is the saving of one who is sick and the covering of the sins is the accompanying forgiveness (see v. 15). James is saying we have a responsibility to do what he describes in verses 13-16. Practical indeed!