Comments on James 1:1-8

30 Jun

Over the next couple of days I will be making some brief comments here about the first chapter of James. Here is the text for today . . .

1:1 From James, a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes dispersed abroad. Greetings! 1:2 My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, 1:3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 1:4 And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything. 1:5 But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him. 1:6 But he must ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed around by the wind. 1:7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, 1:8 since he is a double-minded individual, unstable in all his ways.
Biblical Studies Press. (2005). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (Jas 1:1–8). Biblical Studies Press.
1:1 From James,
We have already established in our introductory notes that this is the Lord’s brother who was the chief elder of the church at Jerusalem.
a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ,
With both a physical link to Jesus and the authority of his eldership in the church at Jerusalem, it is noteworthy that James does not rely on these marks of authority but calls himself instead a slave. In one of the many echoes to the Sermon on the Mount in the book of James, we find in the author one who is not serving two masters but is serving the Lord alone. This designation of himself as slave is fits the description of James in early Christian literature as a devout and humble man. James’ introduction to the letter is much less developed than what we see in Paul’s letters.
to the twelve tribes dispersed abroad.
James is writing to Christians from a Jewish background who are scattered around the eastern Mediterranean. The scattering probably happened in the aftermath of the stoning of Stephen, when a persecution broke out against the Christians in Jerusalem. If this is true, then the trials mentioned in chapter one, while not limited to persecution, may be primarily focused on persecution.
Greetings! James doesn’t use the longer Pauline greeting “grace and peace to you” but he does use a common greeting in the Greek world. And he uses it not only to express good wishes but as a form of wordplay to make his words stick in the minds of his readers. This word for greeting (charein) will be followed a few words later by a key word in verse 2, “joy” (charan). This similarity between words occurs several times in James and serves to make the book easier to remember for those who first heard it read.
 1:2 My brothers and sisters,
This Greek word (adelphoi), is often translated “brothers” but almost all scholars agree that when it is used in the plural form to refer to the church, it is speaking of all believers male and female. Because many in our society today would read the word “brothers” as only referring to males, several translation have moved to this broader translation and even those who retain “brothers” only often note the viability of this alternate translation.
consider it nothing but joy
The danger of the way this is often translated is that we may get the idea that James is urging us to act happy when in the middle of all trials. But the focus of the text is not on being happy with everything about the trial but in being joyful at what the trials produce. The only way to such joy is to “consider” trials as joy. In other words, James is not as concerned about how we feel about our trials as he is how we think about them. Interestingly, these words are not far removed from what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:11-12, when He tells His followers that they should rejoice under persecution.
when you fall into all sorts of trials,
This is interesting wording, because the idea isn’t that we should pursue trials, but that trials will come to us and often by surprise. The “when” points to the inevitability of trials. The phrase “fall into” indicates the often unexpected nature of trials. The word trials here can also be translated “temptations.” The key to determining when to translate the word as trial or temptation is the context of the passage where the word is used.
1:3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.
Here is the key to the first paragraph. We endure trials not because we are gluttons for punishment but because enduring trials with joy is a key to developing an enduring faith. There is a connection here between endurance and faith which is critical to recognize. Endurance is not a separate thing from faith but is bound up with it, so that the endurance that we need is not just the ability to outlast our tough circumstances but is rooted in a deep trust in God in the midst of and through the storms of our lives. In other words, it is enduring faith which is in view here. As I go through hardship James says I should reckon these hardships as joy because of the positive impact they can have on my spiritual maturity if I approach them with a heart that trusts God. The common image of gold refined by fire is both biblical and an appropriate illustration of the paragraph in verses 1:2-4.
1:4 And let endurance have its perfect effect,
Enduring faith has an effect and the effect is perfect (telos). This Greek word is notoriously broad and quite often used in the New Testament. The meaning may range from perfect to complete to full to mature. Here the idea is that endurance has a complete effect or a perfect effect. There is a fullness to the result of enduring faith. Enduring faith does something that can’t be done through a life of ease, it leads us down a path of spiritual maturity. Perhaps this is the reason that Christians who long to be spiritually mature seemingly often face difficult trials, while others without a deep hunger for maturity perhaps have an easier life. This truth is captured powerfully in the John Newton hymn “I Asked the Lord that I Might Grow” . . .

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.

’Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.

I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”

Now it is true that Newton spoke in his hymn of inward trials. But I want to say, are there any other kind? In the end, do not all our outward trials ultimately become a matter of our inward response? This would certainly seem to be the perspective God holds, as He looks not at the outward appearance but at the heart.

so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything. I know there is a confusion that arises with this word “perfect,” as if James means to say we can be sinless, but the idea here seems to be that of spiritual maturity. Again, there is an echo of the Sermon on the Mount . . . “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The goal is that we would not lack anything we need for life and godliness. Indeed 2 Peter 1:3,4 has promised us that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness. Philippians 1:6 promises that God will complete the good work He has begun in us. So we have these great promises of godliness and spiritual maturity. James serves to remind us that the pathway for these promises to become true in our lives is often the pathway of suffering. This of course is a prominent New Testament theme, even if it is one we often overlook. To be truly like Jesus, which is our calling, we must suffer. Jesus Himself warned us of the reality that we would face trouble in this life and the rest of the New Testament consistently reiterates this fact. Peter in particular in his first letter has an apt word for our comfort-seeking American culture,

4:12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 4:13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad.
Biblical Studies Press. (2005). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (1 Pe 4:12–13). Biblical Studies Press.

1:5 But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, The proof that James is not teaching sinless perfection in verse 4 is his acknowledgement of a possible remaining deficiency in verse 5. Why does James bring up wisdom here? Because in the midst of a trial wisdom is our greatest need and is the one thing which will allow us to face our trials with joy. Wisdom is nothing less than seeing reality from a God-oriented point of view. So when I know and live the truth of God I am walking in wisdom. Why would James be concerned at a lack of wisdom, based on this first paragraph? I believe the discussion of wisdom here is intimately related to the issue of facing trials. If I am going to face trials well and with joy, I must understand that they come from the hand of God. God is working through them and using them for my good, for my growth in Him. A lack of wisdom would be to face trials with a fist raised to the heavens, questioning God’s love and goodness. A lack of wisdom might also be displayed by just regarding trials as meaningless, just as things that happen to all people, something to be tolerated but not embraced as a means of spiritual growth. So in order to face trials well with a view toward spiritual growth, I need wisdom. And I must acknowledge that I often lack wisdom. I am prone to knee-jerk reactions when trials come. Things like worry, anxiety, scheming, brooding, depression and anger dominate my thinking rather than the wisdom to consider the good designs of God in my trials. So what should I do if I find this lack of wisdom in my heart?

he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him. So the solution to a lack of wisdom is prayer. And even in this statement there is a hint toward the key to having the wisdom to face trials rightly. God is the one who gives wisdom generously to all and without reprimand. Now I take this to be James’ encouragement to us that when we are dealing with God, we are dealing with one who is gracious toward us and is not against us. This is a helpful bit of knowledge to have when we face trials. Even though your life looks dark, as a follower of Jesus God is for you and is working for your eternal good. So as we ask God for the wisdom to face trials with joy, we must remember that we are dealing with a good Father. God doesn’t mind you asking for what you don’t have. He delights to give you what you can’t give yourself. We should not feel ashamed to ask God for anything we need in order to grow in Christlikeness. It seems to me the all here may be a reference to God’s common grace, but is more likely saying that God gives wisdom to all who ask. And the promise here is firm, we will have wisdom when we ask. This reminds me of the Sermon on the Mount again, as Jesus teaches in chapter 7, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” But there is a condition here in James chapter 1 . . .

1:6 But he must ask in faith without doubting, The question here is what does it mean to ask in faith without doubting. It seems to me that the issues of faith and doubt here are connected to our confidence, or lack thereof, in the character of God. Do we believe that God is a good Father who will not reprimand us for asking for wisdom? Do we believe that God is good in the first place when we are in the midst of a trial? Do we believe that God is powerful enough to work in our trials for our growth in grace? These are the questions of faith and doubt James is concerned with here. The doubting person will tend toward unsteadiness and immaturity and lack of endurance, not because they are emotionally weak or personally deficient but because their view of God is insufficiently high because only a high view of God can lead to a deep faith. The life of faith is the life which trusts in the character of God.

for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed around by the wind. This is the first of several illustrations from James taken from everyday life. This is an affinity He shares with Jesus’ teaching style. Illustrations like this are common in preaching, showing that James is most likely a collection from his sermon material. Douglas Moo speaks powerfully about this image of the wave in his commentary on James, “the picture here is not a wave mounting in height and crashing to the shore, but of the swell of the sea, never having the same texture and shape from moment to moment, but always changing with variations in wind direction and strength.”

1:7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, That person is the one who doubts, the one who is vacillating between two masters. That one should not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord. The Lord, being gracious, may still bless him, but there is no settled assurance like those who trust in the Lord for wisdom. The life on the fence is a most miserable place to live.

1:8 since he is a double-minded individual, unstable in all his ways. The reason this person would have no expectation of God’s supply of wisdom is that he is a double-minded man, therefore unstable in all his ways. The one who doubts the character of God while also longing for the blessing of God is going to inherently be unstable because of divided loyalty. This again accords with Jesus’ words about not being able to serve two masters in Matthew chapter 6. Blomberg says, “This description hits close to home in an age of nominal Christians who attend church from time to time, perhaps even regularly, but who refuse to let God interfere with their daily lives and goals.”

 

 

 

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