With the help of Cyril of Alexandria, Hilary of Arles, Bede, Calvin and other men of God, we exegete the Book of James. As we shall see, James writes a letter encouraging oppressed Christians in their suffering, admonishing them to live faithfully even when temptations encourage them not to.
Note: This article was written before the author’s conversion to Orthodoxy.
1:1 James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.
As we discussed previously, James the brother of Christ is likely being referred to here. This is a minority opinion accepted by Matthew Henry, but rejected by Calvin and all of the Catholic commentaries made before him. It is worth saying that Calvin, like the Catholic commentators, believed in the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. We can see how extra-biblical doctrines, when imposed upon the Scripture, affect our interpretations. While it seems most eminently reasonable that James, the brother of the Lord, would have been the only Apostle who would have not identified himself by family connection, this obviously must be rejected and reinterpreted if Mary always remained a virgin.
James merely identified himself as a “bond-servant” (i.e. slave) of Christ. This is a common identifier among the Apostles and an especially fitting title for the leader of the Church of Jerusalem. For, in the words of Christ, “It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Matt 20:26).
James, at this period of time, was likely seen as the figure with the greatest authority in the Church. This may be surmised by Acts 15 where he gives the decision pertaining to the issue of circumcision, in Acts 21 where he encourages Paul to make a vow, and in Gal 2 where men coming from him (though not representing his ideas, see Acts 15:24) intimidate even Peter and Barnabas to act in a fashion not consistent with the Gospel.
Some men in the early Church recognized this. Chrysostom wrote that the following can be surmised by Acts 15:
James was invested with the chief rule, and think it no hardship. So clean was their soul from love of glory. And after that they had held their peace, James answered, etc. Peter indeed spoke more strongly, but James here more mildly: for thus it behooves one in high authority, to leave what is unpleasant for others to say, while he himself appears in the milder part (Homily 33 on Acts of the Apostles).
The “twelve tribes” is likely a reference to the events after the stoning of Stephen. We can infer this because the Scripture says, “[T]hey were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:2). It is possible James is writing from Jerusalem to those “exiled” by persecution. However, this is not the only possibility, as Peter wrote to “those who reside as aliens” (1 Pet 1:1) while he himself resided in Babylon (i.e. Rome).
Nonetheless, what can can surmise is that the lives of Christians mirror that of the ancient Israelites in the way that they experience the pains of exile. The chief difference between the two is that the Christians during this period of history were not exiled for their sin unlike the Israelites.
Why did James make this connection? It was probably to give hope to the Christians fleeing for their lives that they would be restored like Israel. By making a connection to the exile, he is actually giving encouragement to those that are exiled. As Paul says, “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Rom 15:4)
So even today, all true saints are “aliens and strangers” (1 Peter 2:11), exiled from the Promised Land awaiting “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23).
2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Suffering is a joy, not because it feels good, but because it produces perseverance in the faith. We know this because James says it gives us “endurance” and Paul concurs that it gives us perseverance and hope. As Paul says:
[W]e also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Rom 5:3-4).
We should remember that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for” (Heb 11:1). So, if trials produce hope in the faithful, we can see God uses them in order to increase our faithfulness.
This is why when we suffer, we know that God is testing us because He “disciplines those that He loves” (Heb 12:6, see also Prov 3:12). The testing strengthens and purifies faith, just as fire is a means of strengthening and purifying metal. Peter makes this connection with suffering:
In this you greatly rejoice…you have been distressed by various trials, the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7).
[T]his consolation was not so suited to one time, but that it is always useful to believers, whose life is a constant warfare on earth (1:2).
And why shouldn’t it be if suffering produces perseverance in the faith, the single most important thing in our lives. Christ admonishes us, “By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:19).
We should also take notice that this passage, along with others, is a promise to Christians that we will suffer:
Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).
…he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions (Mark 10:30).
The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God…if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him (Rom 8:16-17).
As Oecumenius, an early commentator on the the Catholic Epistles, wrote on the passage:
For those who have been tried and tested, trials and afflictions are the source of the greatest joy, for that is how their faith is proved (p. 4).
[B]elievers are tested in order to improve their patience, so that by it their faith may be seen to be perfect (p. 6).
Perseverance through suffering is visible proof that our faith is real. As we shall see, having proof that our shared faith is not in vain is an important topic in James.
If you are not suffering for the sake of the kingdom, this should be a real cause of concern for you. Those who suffer for righteousness’ sake know that they are the Lord’s for they are attaining to one of the many promises of God. People who do not suffer for God’s sake must question where they stand with God, for God does not fail to fulfill His promises. It is we who fail!
5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.
We must God for wisdom, because we cannot discern spiritual truths apart from His grace. As Moses prays, “Let me know Your ways that I may know You, so that I may find favor in Your sight” (Ex 33:13). We must ask God for such wisdom, because we need such wisdom to worship Him rightly and thereby please Him.
As Augustine notes:
[I]f this wisdom were from ourselves it would not be from above and we would not have to ask for it from the God who created us (On Grace and Fee Will, Chap 24).
Saving wisdom can come only from God and cannot be found by human free will (p.7).
Why does James suddenly say this after an admonishment about persecutions? One thing we must note, is that James has a disjointed way of writing. A preceding passage relates with the subsequent one, but only in the sense that it serves as a leaping off point to it.
Calvin, understanding this, wrote that the connection between verse five and the previous ones is that verses two through four are a hard teaching to accept. “If this doctrine is higher than what your minds can reach to,” he speculates James was thinking, “ask of the Lord to illuminate you by his Spirit” (1:5). Hence, if a teaching is difficult we must not refuse to accept it, but rather accept it and pray to God to understand why it is so.
Further, we should pray with confidence that He will answer such a prayer based on the authority that He promises to answer all such petitions:
For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened…If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him (Luke 11:10, 13)?
6 But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8 being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
What is the connection between what we just read and what James has said thus far? Matthew Henry’s Commentary observes:
A mind that has but one single and prevailing regard to its spiritual and eternal interest, and that keeps steady in its purposes for God, will grow wise by afflictions, will continue fervent in its devotions [here it is prayer], and will be superior to all trials and oppositions.
And so, James focuses on the nature of prayer, because a faithful Christian enduring through trials will petition God with confidence that He will give him the power to endure.
But the passage also begs the question: Why is it so evil to pray to God without unshakeable confidence that He will do it? God does have a pretty long track record of unanswered prayers. Further, we even see such seemingly doubtful prayers being answered in the Scripture: “I do believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
Clearly, the attitude of the one who petitions God is the deciding factor. If one prays to God mindful of one’s own weaknesses, knowledgeable that God may answer the prayer differently than he may expect, and confident in the sovereignty of God that He is completely able and willing to answer prayer, then that one does well.
[I]f you have not believed that God will hear your request, you have not acted in such a way as to avoid being condemned already…The doubter has become doubleminded even without wanting to be (Cyril of Alexandria, p. 8).
Those who believe and ask with the right motives shall receive, while those who doubt will be condemned by God. They prove to be faithless, not trusting in His promises.
Now, there are those who will take passages such as these and endorse a “name it and claim it” theology. James will discuss why God does not answer prayers with the wrong motives in the fourth chapter.
9 But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position
The word “but” is not in the Greek, so it might confuse an otherwise simple-to-understand verse: Those of us suffering should glory in our humiliation, for by our suffering we know God considers us worthy to suffer for his name. For Christ said not only “blessed are the poor in spirit,” but also “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great” (Matt 5:11-12).
10 and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.
This is intended to be a sarcastic comment. Obviously a rich man does not glory in the fact that he will pass away. Rather, “But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full” (Luke 6:24).
Unlike those who suffer for righteousness’ sake who rightly understand that their tribulations are proof of their high position in God’s eyes, the rich have an expectation of judgment for they have not attained to the suffering that God has promised the faithful.
So, beware of the deceitful appeal of riches. “The flower of the field is pretty and its smell is pleasant for a while, but it soon loses the attraction of beauty and charm” (Bede quoted in p. 10). The appeal of riches should not last long to the Christian. “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim 6:10). I would be negligent if I did not warn you of the piercing pain that comes with the desire for wealth. Its beauty is fleeting, it is pain inducing, and it cannot satisfy the soul.
12 Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.
Now we see James summarize the thought he started in verses two to four. He invokes Wisdom 5:15-16 in doing so: “But the righteous live forever…Therefore they will receive a glorious crown and a beautiful diadem from the hand of the Lord.” The thought merely underscores the blessings of suffering. For as Matthew Henry’s Commentary puts it, “Sufferings and temptations are the way to eternal blessedness.”
13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.
The commentators mostly fixate on the nature of the temptation here. Before we cover this, let’s consider the connection between verse 13 and the discussion pertaining to the blessings of suffering.
The connection between the two is that both pertain to the kinds of sufferings a Christian confronts. There is the suffering that God gives for the building up of our faith, which James speaks of in verses two to twelve. For these we should glorify God and pray for deliverance. We should be vigilant in not doubting God in our petitions to Him throughout the process, as James admonishes us.
As Calvin observes in this passage:
It is abundantly evident that the external temptations, hitherto mentioned, are sent to us by God (1:13).
Then, there is the kind of suffering that “is really a kind of testing that comes from God” (Augustine, Sermon 57, Par. 9), usually in the form of our own temptation to sin. Deut 13:3 warns “you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” The Scripture often assigns the responsibility to these temptations to God Himself.
And even though God is sovereign over these evils, James would have us know that the God is not the cause of it. For example, when Job suffered the direct cause was Satan and the doubts in his own mind. It is the latter that concerns us in James 1:13.
God may permit Satan to bring us tribulations in order to ultimately bless us, but we are not to blame God for the sufferings in our hearts when we are tempted to sin. “Each of us is scourged by the ropes of our owns sins” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Sermon on the Paralytic, 17).
If God does not tempt anyone to sin, then in what sense is he sovereign over it? Peter Chrysologus, a bishop in the fifth century summed it up with Romans 1 in mind: God is said to tempt when He abandons those who stubbornly fall into the snares of temptation (p. 11).
In this way, God directly tempts no one to evil.
15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.
You are “tempted by your own lust,” according to verse 14. Now, being tempted in of itself is not a sin! Calvin is falsely attributed with this idea. It is a heretical idea, as it would turn our Savior into a sinner, as he was tempted 40 days in the wilderness.
[I]nward temptations…are nothing else than the inordinate desires which entice to sin…[T]hey flow from the corruption of our nature…[L]ust which is not any kind of evil affection or desire, but that which is the fountain of all evil affections (1:15).
So, we are totally depraved inasmuch that we struggle with a “body of this death” (Rom 7:25). This body, polluted with lust is easily tricked by Satan to give into temptation. As Hillary of Arles observes:
Temptations come in three ways, by persuasion, by attraction, and by consent. Satan persuades, the flesh is attracted, and the mind consents (p. 5).
Temptations entice one to lust for sin, and when the mind consents to the lust to conceive this evil, only then is sin given birth to. Sin is not involuntary, rather, it is an act of the will. We must consciously consent to evil for it to be sin.
Let’s put this in layman’s terms: It is not sin that I find women, other than my wife, attractive. It is sinful to consent to lust either by pursuing thoughts or actions pertaining to women other than whom I am betrothed to.
Many take this as a “get out of jail free card” as to their whole perverse thought life. But let’s be honest with ourselves; how easy is it to consent to a lustful thought? Lust for sex, lust for anger, lust for greed, which is idolatry (Col 3:5)–the list goes on and on.
16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.
Do not be tricked by Satan into blaming God for your own temptations which you lust for and successfully conceive on a daily basis. God is not to be blamed for these, you are!
17 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. 18 In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.
Unlike sin, which is solely the fruit of our lust-polluted flesh, the doing of good (particularly coming to faith in Christ) is solely the work of God. All good things come “down from the Father of lights.” “Lights” is not a euphemism for the stars, as Matthew Henry’s Commentary speculates, but in the words of Andreas of Caesarea, “The lights are…those who have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit” (p. 15).
For as Paul said to the Thessalonians, “You are children of light”(1 Thes 5:5) and we attain to this status not by our own doing, but “the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man” (John 1:9). So, James says God is the Father of lights, for He by His Spirit enlightens men to believe in His Son. We know this explanation is true because it corresponds with verse 18.
With whom there is no variation or shifting shadow for God is the Father of all things good unlike man, and “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent” (Num 23:19). Take confidence in your trials and tribulations Christian, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it” (Phil 1:6). God does not begin something He will not finish–He is the Father of every perfect gift, there is no variation with Him.
In the exercise of His will the Father brings us to Christ for “none can come to me unless the Father draws him” (John 6:44). In the words of Augustine:
[T]o be drawn to Christ by the Father, and to hear and learn of the Father in order to come to Christ, is nothing else than to receive from the Father the gift by which to believe in Christ (On the Predestination of the Saints, Ch. 15).
He brought us forth by the word of truth which is delivered to us by preaching for: “How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher” (Rom 10:14)?
God does all of this so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures. We are the first fruits among His creatures as we are, in the words of Andreas, “the first and most highly honored” of all created things (p. 16). God makes us His trophies, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph 2:10). This is why He brought us forth by the word of truth and gives us perseverance through suffering. And, for this reason, it is of the utmost importance to conduct oneself as one who truly believes he is a new creation in Christ producing spiritual fruit.