The Epistle of James is one of the most intensely practical of all New Testament books. One commentator has subtitled the book “Wisdom That Works,” because the epistle is just that: a useful guide for everyday Christian behavior. In keeping with the Jewish idea that wisdom is something practical, this study will reflect a tone and style similar to other Biblical wisdom literature, such as found in the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. The language is not only personal and emotional, the outflow of a deep and earnest spirit, but is also rich in graphic language. Maxim follows maxim, and the letter moves from one metaphor to another. I pray as you read and study James pithy instructions, you will find yourself being lovingly prodded toward greater obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ.
Dr. Michael Cochran
BOOK OF JAMES BIBLE STUDY
LESSON # 1 - (James 1: 1-8, NIV)
TITLE: DEVELOPING THE GRACE OF PERSEVERENCE
If the Book of James makes anything clear, it is the Jewish character of the early Christian church. When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost (Book of Acts), He came mostly to Jews or proselytes to the Jewish religion.
This fact is well worth keeping in mind for students of James's letter to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” Because the church was not yet primarily Gentile in character, James presupposes a good deal more knowledge of the Old Testament and the Jewish faith than the average student of the Scriptures is likely to have today. If James's epistle seems somehow “strange” or out of character with much of the New Testament, it is probably for this reason.
In Understanding the Epistle of James, today's student of Scripture would be well advised to adopt an inquisitive attitude toward the Old Testament, seeing it not as a collection of out-of-date history stories but as presenting living examples of what it means to walk by faith.
JAMES 1:1, 2
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings.
Trials and Temptations
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds,
Though he was the acknowledged leader in the Jerusalem church during part of the apostolic period, and though tradition identifies him as the brother of Jesus, yet James does not gloat in his credentials. Instead, he calls himself a “servant,” or a slave.
The term “servant” (doulos) has a great deal of meaning when considered in light of what James might have called himself: the Lord's brother, an apostle, a leader in the church, and the like. These titles would have emphasized James's authority to speak in his own right; instead James chose to emphasize that as God's servant he stood in a long tradition of giants of the faith who had also been called servants: Isaiah (Isa. 20:3); Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Deut. 9:27), etc.
These Old Testament saints were obedient, humble, and loyal to God. It is in this tradition that James commends himself to his readers.
James describes the people to whom he is writing as “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” Some scholars say these exiles were Jewish; others say they were Jewish Christians; and still others, Gentile Christians. “The Twelve Tribes” usually have been associated with Israel, but the reference is used also of the early church. After persecution erupted in Jerusalem and Judea, many Christians of the first century were dispersed throughout the Roman Empire.
James's first instruction to the exiles is that they should endure all “trials,” or testing. Rather than viewing inner desires and outer pressures as destructive of the Christian life, James sees these circumstances has having a purifying quality.
JAMES 1:3, 4
3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Trials will test the faith of a believer. But if a person has genuine faith, trials will strengthen his or her character. They will produce the sterling quality of endurance. Endurance is the staying power which enables a person to persevere through the most adverse circumstances. The Greek word does not denote a passive quality like the English word “perseverance “ often suggests. It refers to the stamina with which the Christian contends against the many hindrances, persecutions, and temptations that befall in this life. To develop perseverance means to progressively produce it.
The hard truth of the passage is that Christian growth often involves periods of trial. But in view of the good God can bring out of them, these trials should be accepted with joy. We know, that as a result of persecution many of the first century Christians were dispersed throughout the ancient world and became bold proclaimers of the Gospel in the areas that they fled. Persecution produced missionaries!
To be “mature” means, in a Biblical sense, to be moving toward completion. Christ filled out His complete Messianic function through suffering (Heb. 2:10). “Complete” calls attention to all the separate elements being there, in contrast to one-sided, unbalanced development. It builds on the Old Testament sacrifices which were entire in that they fully met the specifications of the law (they weren't lame, blind, etc.), so the idea is that when mature we will not just partially obey God, but fully.
JAMES 1:5, 8
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. 6 But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.
There is a close connection between this passage and what has gone before. James has just told the readers that if they use the testing experiences of life in the right way, they will emerge from them with the unswerving constancy that is basis of greater virtue. But immediately the question arises, “Where can I find the wisdom and understanding to use trials in the right way?” James's answer is, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God.”
Wisdom is not merely philosophic speculation and intellectual knowledge. But, is practical. In other words, wisdom is wisdom for life. There is room for knowledge of the deep things of God, of course, but Christian wisdom is essentially practical. It is knowledge turned into action in the decisions and personal relationships of everyday life.
At the minimum, James is thinking of our lack of wisdom to see trials as occasions for joy. At the maximum, he may also have in mind the whole range of areas where we need wisdom (divine perspective).
But it is important to know how to ask for wisdom. The Christian must be sure of both the power and the desire of God to give. A person must not ask in doubt. If one asks in doubt, one's mind is like waves of the sea, driven back and forth by any chance wind.
If the experiences of life are to produce character in us, we must ask wisdom of God. Jesus underscored that those who ask for wisdom will receive it when He said, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:13). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of wisdom, and yet frequently Christians seek to live without His guidance. But Jesus reminds us that just as a responsible parent is happy to see his child coming to him in trust, so God is pleased with us when we approach Him in such anticipation. Our faith in asking is based on this characteristic of our Heavenly Father.
What a contrast is the “double-minded” person! Such a one will be uncertain about everything, uncertain of principles and always wondering and hesitant about what to do. Opinions and decisions will be always vacillating and dependent on what others think, but without the possibility of ever coming to concrete conclusions.
In fact, it is understandable that James uses rebuke-laden language in referring to the doubter. A double-minded person denies the very nature of God as a loving parent who delights in giving good things to His children. The double-minded person is “unstable in all he does” because he or she refuses to be committed to God and, for lack of an anchor in Him, is “blown and tossed by the wind.”
James uses this negative example to introduce the idea that real faith is always made evident in a person's actions. The one who, confident in God's desire to give generously without finding fault, petitions Him boldly is acting on Hebrews 11:6: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
The opposite, of course, is a single-minded person who wholeheartedly trusts in God. Even when difficulties come, such a person proves the Word of God to be true.
QUESTIONS TO PONDER:
1. Do you think we can become “mature and complete” without trials?
2. Why do you think the virtue of faith is such an important part of answered prayer?
3. How does your view of hardships and trials compare with James's message?