James Chapter 1
The reasons for believing James to be the Lord's brother are well summarized elsewhere (1); his introduction is therefore an essay in humility and not playing on human relationships as a means to assert authority, seeing he does not mention this fleshly relationship: "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ". James the Lord's brother being the clear leader of the early church, it would be fitting that at least one of his letters (and Hebrews too?) be preserved. His high position of respect is indicated by Mk.15:40 describing a "James the less"- i.e. than the great James the Lord's brother. It was not until after James' death that the Gospel mushroomed among the Gentiles, which again points to a basically Jewish readership being catered for. The Lord's brothers having been sceptical of him during his ministry (Jn.7:3-5), James' depth of appreciation must have developed at lightning speed for him to write this epistle at a relatively early date. Two outstanding characteristics of James are the constant allusions to previous Scripture, especially the Gospels and Proverbs, and the intensely practical understanding of the moment by moment spiritual battle which we all face. It is worth noting that the most senior brother of the early church scored highly on these points. His humility in calling himself a servant of the Lord Jesus is remarkable- Paul could legitimately lay weight to his reasoning by saying he had seen Christ in the flesh (1 Cor.9:1; 2 Cor.5:16); how much more so could James have gently pointed out his "(knowing) Christ after the flesh"?
"Greeting" (v.1) means literally 'I wish you joy'. James then goes on to define what that joy is: "Count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations". And so we are introduced to the basic theme of James- the machinery of human nature and our evil desires, and how to overcome them. Contrary to how it is often read, the temptations here are spiritual temptations- so the context of the chapter and letter require. "Every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust (NIV "evil desire"), and enticed" (1:14). The real temptations in life are to give way to our evil desires; the trials of life like illness or disaster may not necessarily tempt us so strongly in this way. It is easy to think that 'temptation' refers to these 'physical' trials, and to see those problems as things in themselves to be bravely endured. But whether we lose a leg or miss a bus, the same spiritual temptation of frustration- or whatever- may be presented to each sufferer. The flesh tends to make a big difference between physical and spiritual temptations; but to God- and James- the spiritual temptations are of paramount importance; whatever physical temptations we have are not for their own sake but to create the situation which our evil desires will use to tempt us spiritually. For other examples of 'temptation' and trial referring primarily to the spiritual temptations that lie behind the physical trials, see Digression 1.
James exhorts us to count falling into spiritual temptation as a joy; instead of the 'here we go again...', 'sin after sin' kind of attitude descending on us as we sense such temptations approaching. We must instead rejoice that here is another opportunity to please God on the highest level possible; to have an evil desire in your heart and to overcome it. The idea of falling ("When ye fall..") may create the idea of giving way to the temptations. But there may be some degree to which we fall (2) a little way before we are tempted: "Every man is tempted, when he is drawn away (from his normal safe spiritual self, abiding in Christ) of his own lust" (1:14). There is surely no real temptation if the evil desire appears so unattractive as to not even lead us part way towards realizing it. Thus the devil in the sense of Christ's natural desires (Heb.4:15 cp. James 1:14,15) led Jesus away from His own supreme spirituality to tempt him (3).
"Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience" (v.3). Our joy at the onset of temptation should be because we know that we have an opportunity to develop permanent spiritual fruit, if only we can respond correctly in those split seconds when the process of being drawn away and enticed is going on. The trying of our faith due to spiritual temptation is in the sense of our faith that God "is able to keep (us) from falling" (Jude 24). In the moment of temptation, whether it be from an unkind word from someone or irritation at someone's natural characteristics, our joy will be helped by our faith that God will keep us from falling, and will not lead us any further into temptation unless we go on ourselves. However, "Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom.10:17).
"Thy word have I hid in mine heart (source of our evil desires), that I might not sin against Thee" (Ps.119:11). Thus the spiritual temptations lead to a testing of the faith developed by the word- perhaps implying that each individual piece of spiritual faith developed by the word is then tested by a spiritual temptation.
At this point it is worth drawing attention to the remarkable parallels between James 1 and 1 Peter 1 (4). The infallible principle of interpreting Scripture by Scripture will therefore allow more light to be shed on much of James 1. Peter's parallel to "the trying of your faith worketh patience" is "Ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: that the trial of your faith...tried with fire" (1 Pet.1:6,7). A heavy spirit is more likely the result of prolonged spiritual temptation than physical trials, although these were no doubt the cause of the spiritual tests. The fire therefore represents the fire of the flesh, a figure which James also uses regarding the tongue as the epitomy of our evil desires (3:5,6). Thus Prov.16:27: "An unGodly man diggeth up evil (out of the evil treasure of his heart- or is this the basis of the wasted talent parable?): and (therefore) in his lips there is as a burning fire"; cp. too 1 Cor.7:9. It is the constant reaction to spiritual trial that forges an acceptable character, not just the receipt of physical trial, as would be the case if the fire only represented persecution in itself. This trial of faith "worketh patience"- which must therefore be defined in this context as the ability to grit one's teeth in the moment of temptation, and cling on to one's faith in God's spiritual protection in the power of the word.
Such patience results in a "perfect work..perfect and entire, wanting nothing" (1:4; note the triple emphasis of the same idea) in terms of spiritual development. The word of God has the power to make perfect (2 Tim.3:16; 1 Cor.13:10), and we have seen its place in developing the faith and patience which James says lead us to perfection. The trial of faith leads to the development of these fruits of the Spirit; yet the word also leads to the same fruits (Jn.15:7 cp. v.4,5). For more examples of the word generating spiritual trial and trials having the same effect as the action of the word on us, see Digression 2. The goals of spiritual development James sets are high- contrast Paul, who frequently laments the realities of the flesh (why the different approach?). Maybe James was alluding to Christ's ultimatum "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect", Mt.5:48. The idea of perfection occurs again in 3:2, where it applies to the man who does not offend in word, and therefore has his whole life in tight control- again, the result of a mind fully controlled by the word. In the context of sin and forgiveness, Paul's words in Rom.5 take on new meaning: "We glory in (spiritual) tribulations (cp."Count it all joy...") also: knowing that (spiritual) tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed" (Rom.5:3-5). "Tribulation" is therefore to be equated with "the (spiritual) trial of your faith" in James 1.
The interpretation of "faith" as faith in God's keeping us from falling (Jude 24) is confirmed by a closer look at Rom.5; "Not only so, but we glory in tribulations also"- as if he is saying that the "tribulations" had the same effect as "being justified by faith (in forgiveness), we have peace (through forgiveness) with God...we have access by faith (in forgiveness) into this grace..." (Rom.5:1,2). So we see the equation: "Tribulations" (Rom.5:3)= same effect as having total faith in forgiveness (Rom.5:1,2)= "the trial of your faith" that God will help you overcome your sin (James 1:3), i.e. keep you from spiritually falling (Jude 24). In the language of Rom.5, the "experience" of patiently resisting sin gives birth to hope- confidence and a positive approach, hoping for grace in the last day. The more we overcome the hour by hour nigglings of the flesh, the more humbly confident we will be of our eternal future.
"That ye may be perfect" may seem an unreasonably high target. In Eph.4:13 Paul says that through the ministry of the Spirit (now in the word) we are on the way to the "perfect man" state; he implies that he too is on that journey ("till we all come"). Yet in Phil.3:12-17 Paul speaks as if whilst he has not yet reached that state, striving for literal perfection is the same thing as being perfect. "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after...reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize...let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded...be followers together of me" in this example of all out striving for a perfect character. Does this indicate that a state of perfection is theoretically possible for us in this life(5), through developing a full faith in God's total justification of us on account of our being in Christ? Thus both the word and the blood of Christ sanctify us, seeing that the word reveals and develops faith in Christ's sacrifice (Jn.17:17; Heb.10:10-14). Both blood and water (the word- Eph.5:26) came from Christ's side on the cross.
Word of wisdom
"If any of you lack wisdom" (1:5)- "wisdom" is associated with the faith and perfection which James well anticipates his readers would complain they lacked. We have seen that the word is the source of such faith, perfection and endurance; it seems fair to equate wisdom with the word. We will see by and by that James makes frequent reference to Proverbs- and in that book wisdom is almost a synonym for the word, in the local instance the Law of Moses, upon which Proverbs is often a commentary.
"Let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not" (1:5). Again, James anticipates the natural human fear that a totally spiritual God will upbraid us for our lack of spiritual strength; but God's giving of such strength is "liberal", to whoever asks. James evidently interpreted "Ask, and it shall be given you" (Mt.7:7) as primarily referring to asking for spiritual strength and knowledge. Similarly "...how much more shall your Father which is in Heaven give good things ("the Holy Spirit", Lk.11:13) to them that ask Him?" (Mt.7:11). These passages appear to be alluded to by James here- thus wisdom, the word, the Holy Spirit, good things , "every good gift and perfect gift" (1:17), God's spiritual help to overcome sin, are all equated. These things are further defined in 3:17 as resulting in peace and harmony.
"Upbraideth not" can imply to taunt, to cast in the teeth. James implies God doesn't do that, implying some others did. No doubt he was referring to the spiritually elitist Judaizers, who would have rejoiced to mock the spiritually immature who humbly sought for spiritual strength to overcome their temptations. "Upbraideth not"! God expects us to crawl to Him seeking for such strength to do better. But half the time our love of true spirituality just isn't strong enough to motivate us, and we let our fear of God's holiness and righteousness make us fear His 'upbraiding'.
"But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering". A half hearted 'Dear God please keep me from this sin I think I may well commit soon' is no good. It is easy to conceive of faith as a sense of hope and trust in God in time of physical trial. But far more is it a totality of belief that God will hold us back from sinning as the temptation starts to develop- surely the supreme way of showing faith.
"He that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind". There must be a connection with the later description of a controlled tongue being the force that overcomes fierce winds (3:2-4). Words being a reflection of the mind (Mt.12:34), controlled words show a controlled mind, which is through the influence of the word. Such a man is a "perfect man" (3:2)- i.e. matured by the word (2 Tim.3:16,17; 1 Cor.13:10). Thus the only way to ask for spiritual strength is if the mind is firmly controlled by the word, which thus generates an upwards spiritual spiral- "unto every one that hath (of spiritual strength) shall (more) be given...but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath" (Mt.25:29). This parable of the talents must refer to spiritual knowledge and strength, and the need we have to develop (trade) the spiritual gifts we have been given. Notice how we are given the talents/ gifts of spirituality, totally at the discretion of the Master. In a similar way, the gift of wisdom in James 1:5 equates with the "good..and..perfect gift...from the Father...the word of truth" of 1:17,18 and the wisdom that descends from above that is pureness, peace, gentleness, mercy etc. in 3:17.
Wave on the water
"Wavereth" comes from a root meaning 'division', giving the idea of inner debate. We will see that time and again James is warning us against having a semi-spirituality, whereby only part of our mind is totally influenced by the word, whilst other parts still retain the thinking of the flesh. "He that wavereth is like a wave of the sea, driven with the wind and tossed".
James being so shot through with allusions to the Gospels, it is tempting to think that James is as it were taking a snapshot of Peter, wavering both in his physical movement and in faith as he stood on the water. Jesus did not upbraid Peter (cp.1:5) for his request for strength and support, but was eager to satisfy it.
There is also a possible connection with Eph.4:13,14, which says that the miraculous Spirit gifts were to be possessed until the church reached the "perfect man" state, i.e. when the canon was completed (1 Cor.13:8-10 cp. 2 Tim.3:16,17), and that through being in that state they would "henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine...and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive". The primary reference is doubtless to the doctrine of the Judaizers. This would liken the brother in James 1 whose faith in the Lord's protection from temptation is weak, to the brother in Ephesians 4 who will not make full use of the word to remain in the "perfect man" state, and is therefore liable to be influenced by false teaching. Both brethren are weak for the same reason- not making full use of the Spirit's gift in the word. Eph.4:13,14 implies that firmly grasping the basic doctrines of the one faith results in us not being blown about by winds. This connection with James teaches that true doctrine will have a very practical effect upon our lives; in this case, by developing a firm faith.
James constantly sets before us the need to strive for a "perfect" (complete, mature) man state, through having a mind wholly committed to the word. His black and white, "hot or cold" approach is now powerfully shown: "Let not that man (the waverer) think that he shall receive anything of the Lord" (1:7). This squashes the natural human reasoning that a bit of faith in prayer will lead to a bit of response from God. Faith is an absolute state. We either pray in faith- or with what are effectively empty words. But of course by contrast, if we do not waver, we certainly shall receive of the Lord. Again, there is another warning against semi-spirituality: having faith within certain limits, being content with expecting a small answer to our requests in accordance with our shaky faith. The way James understands human nature shines through, and it is fitting that someone of his experience and insight into the moment by moment ways of the flesh should have been the great leader of the early church. He too must have analysed his sins and temptations like we also can do. The correlation between his being such a senior brother and his evident appreciation of the wiles of the flesh must be significant; something to think about at the next ecclesial election?
The theme of semi-spirituality continues: "A double minded man is unstable in all his ways" (v.8)- i.e. all his spiritual ways. "Ways" is often used in a spiritual context in Proverbs, to which James alludes so much. The more evident allusion here is to Mt.6:24: "No man can serve two masters: for..he will hate the one, and love the other..Ye cannot serve God and mammon". James inspired interpretation of Matthew would make this apply to our minds. One can quite easily serve two masters physically, externally; as every self-examining Christian should be all too aware. It is only in our heart that we can only serve one master. "Mammon" in the James context is thus not just material goods, but more importantly the lack of a totally spiritual mind which is behind these things. Note again the 'all or nothing' approach. While surely every reader of these words finds this somewhat worrying, tempting to conclude that this exposition is so idealistic as to be out of touch with reality, it does us no harm to reflect that ultimately in God's sight things are in black and white. As we read these words we are either in black or white with God. The ideal standard is set by Christ speaking of taking up the cross daily and following him. "To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" Paul could say. If our conscience is tuned according to the word, we should be able to sense whether we are "double minded...wavering" or with that totality of commitment to the word in our heart, even if sometimes we falter. Considering these things should make us all recognize that spiritually we are but candles in the wind, desperately needing to make every effort to resist the winds of the flesh, and seek the shelter of Christ and His word of grace which keeps us from falling.
"Double minded" means literally 'two souled', showing that the soul can refer also to the spiritual side of man, as well as the carnal. Notice how in the context James is talking about the mind being split into carnal and semi-spiritual divisions. The 'souls' referred to in the phrase 'double minded' would therefore be referring to attitudes of mind. For more on 'The Problem of Soul and Spirit', see Digression 3.
Rising up higher
"Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted" (v.9). The riches which exalt the poor brother are the spiritual riches contained in the word (Ps.119:14; Prov.3:16 etc.). A poor brother being exalted recalls the parable about taking the lowest seat in the ecclesia so we may rise up higher at the judgement. Yet James uses the present tense- "he is exalted". This is one of many examples of believers being spoken of as if in prospect they are already in the Kingdom (see Digression 4), in the same way as Israel were constituted the Kingdom of God at Sinai after their Red Sea baptism, but were not fully manifested as such politically until their entry into Canaan. Thus "The rich...is (present tense) made low (i.e. told to take the lower seat, as he will at judgement)...he shall (future) pass away" (v.10). However, this may have had a primary reference to the rich Jews of the first century being stripped of their wealth in some parts of the empire. Note that Heb.10:34 was also written to the scattered, persecuted Christian Jews whom James was addressing: "Ye...took joyfully the spoiling of your goods". If James is alluding to the parable of the wedding feast, then the reference to the poor brethren being given an honoured seating place in God's sight in this life, would have telling reference to the practice of the rich Christian Jews having their own honoured seats in the ecclesias to whom James was writing (2:3). This command to "rejoice" is in the context of v.2 speaking about rejoicing in spiritual trial. For the low brother who was to be exalted, the very thought of such greatness in the Kingdom could be a temptation to pride- and he should rejoice in the chance to fight this. 'Let him rejoice' shows that the kind of joy James is thinking of would not come naturally, as it would if the brother was just thinking of his exaltation in this life.
"Because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away". 1 Pet.1:24,25 has a similar passage: "All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth for ever". The fading grass is contrasted by Peter to the enduring Word of God, and this is repeated by James. The humble brother taking the lowest seat in the ecclesia (cp. the more spiritual members being told in 2:3 "sit here under my footstool...stand thou there" because all the chairs were taken by the rich) is connected with the one who asks the wisdom from God (v.5), who is not wavering or double minded, and who through the word is attaining to the perfect man state (v.4). Thus the poor in this world are rich in the faith that comes by hearing the word of God.
The figure of fading grass suggests reference back to Is.40:5-8: "The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together...The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth...surely the people is grass...but the word of our God shall stand for ever".
The "glory of the Lord" being revealed primarily refers to Christ's manifestation to Israel at his first coming. The preceding verses 3 and 4 describe John's preparatory work: "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness...". "All; flesh" were to see the revelation of God's glory in Christ. This "all flesh" can refer to the Jews, "all" of whom went out into the wilderness to hear John's testimony regarding the coming Christ. This is confirmed by v.7 "The (Jewish) people is grass". The "goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field" would then be a reference to the Jewish law, which was "holy, just and good" but offered a fading glory, which Paul in 2 Cor.3:7-18 said epitomized the Law. The word of the Lord (v.5) and "the spirit of the Lord" (v.7) were to make the grass wither and pass away, although the word would remain. This pointed forward to the ending of the Jewish system and Law through the work of Christ, "the word made flesh", "the Lord the Spirit" (2 Cor.3:18 R.V.), and the ministry of the word remaining.
James seems to have this background in mind when he makes the allusion in 1:9-11 to Is.40. The rich Christian Jews of the first century who were not that humble to the power of the word may well also have been swayed by Judaist arguments. They are being likened to the "grass" of Is.40, which represented the Jewish system which was to be replaced by a permanent, unfading system based on the word. The Messianic Ps.102:4,11 describes our Lord as being "withered like grass", showing how in his life and death on the cross he took upon himself the punishment of apostate Israel. James is neatly exhorting them to commit themselves wholly to the word, lest the demise of the Jewish system should result in their fading away too. Yet there is also the very primary application to the materialism of this group, being obsessed by their earthly riches. "So also shall the rich man fade away in his ways". "Ways" is elsewhere translated "journeyings", and would connect with the reference to the itinerant Jewish traders in 4:13: "Ye (amongst the believers) that say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain".
"For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat ("a hot wind", Gk.), but it withereth the grass...blessed is the man that endureth temptation" (v.11,12) is an obvious allusion to the person who received the word and quickly "sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth", referring to the person who falls away due to temptation (Mt.13:5,20,21). The rich members of the ecclesia had therefore only let the word enter them skin-deep; it had not penetrated far through the "earth" of the flesh. The rising of the sun can refer both to Christ's coming (Mal.4:2) and also to trials. In a sense both these meanings were fulfilled in AD70, when the rich Jews converted just prior to AD70 fell away, having endured only "for a while". The call to let God's word fully penetrate our flesh goes out to us with great urgency, living as we do on the brink of the final period of trial, and the full coming of Christ. More thoughts concerning all this will be found in Digression 13 about the parable of the sower.
Moment by moment
"Blessed is the man that endureth (spiritual) temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life" (1:12). Now James is giving us supreme encouragement in those moments when the decision between flesh and spirit looms large. When we endure spiritual temptation, hanging on to the spiritual side of our minds, we will at that moment receive a crown for overcoming in Heaven. Because of this, we will be given the crown of victory at the judgement (2 Tim.4:8), which has been developed as a result of our moment by moment spiritual victories in this life. Therefore each temptation we face is like a mini-judgment seat. This idea of there being some recognition in heaven the moment we achieve a spiritual victory is perhaps based on Mt.5:11,12. So much of James is rooted especially in the Sermon on the mount. "Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you...rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is (present tense) your reward in Heaven". Our eternal life "is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory" (Col.3:3,4) Similarly Rev.3:11 implies we do now have the crown in a sense: "Hold fast that thou hast (your reward you have in prospect?) that no man take thy crown". Through our trials, God "scourgeth every son whom he receiveth", and therefore we can be spoken of in the continuous tense as "receiving a Kingdom" through our continued correct response to trials (Heb.12:6,28).
In those moments of spiritual temptation it is easy to recognize that the situation creating the temptation has clearly been arranged by God, and therefore to get bitter against Him. But "Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God" (v.13). Now the earlier definition of 'temptation' as the spiritual temptation to sin which arises within us becomes vital. God may put the physical temptation in our way- e.g. the serpent in Eden, God tempting Abraham in Gen.22:1- but our evil desires or "lusts" in our minds (v.14) are alone responsible for our sinning, due to wrongly responding to these physical temptations. Thus God could therefore examine the inner thought process of David's mind to reveal whether he was giving way to the spiritual temptations that would be developed by the physical trials: "Examine me, O Lord, and prove (same word as "tempt" in Gen.22:1) me; try my reins and my heart" (Ps.26:2). Thus "Every man is tempted, when he is drawn away" (v.14).
"When lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin". The lusts inside our mind are being likened to an attractive woman enticing us. Thus the instinct to illicit sexual sttraction within us is seen as a type of all wrong attraction to sins of any kind. It is a repeated New Testament theme that the punishment for sin is some kind of burning by fire. To the Old Testament mind, this image of being burnt at judgment day would have connected with the command to burn a whore (Lev.21:9); thus all types of sin are to be seen as prostitution against God. The same process in sexual attraction of a wrong thought taking root, constantly preying on the spiritual mind, resulting in our allowing it to grow under the excuse that we are still in control, eventually bringing forth gross sin, is repeated time and again as we are faced with the spiritual temptations of life every hour. The same figure occurs in Num.15:39 speaking of 'going a whoring' "after your own heart and your own eyes", as if our natural mind is a whore.
Our inherent sin and carnal mind being likened to a whore or glamorous woman is a strong theme of Proverbs. The important thing to note is that Proverbs emphasizes that it is obedience to the word which will keep us from the lusts which the woman represents. "The lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil...hear me now therefore (says the wisdom/word), O ye children, and depart not from the words of my mouth. Remove thy way far from her" (by listening to wisdom's words); Prov.5:3,7,8. "For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light...to keep thee from the evil woman, from the flattery of the tongue of a strange woman" (Prov.6:23,24).
The strange woman
Prov.7:1-5 is an even stronger emphasis: "Keep my words, and lay up my commandments..keep my commandments...My Law...that they may keep thee from the strange woman, from the stranger which flattereth with her words". The woman was "subtle of heart" (v.10), recalling the serpent, and had a guise of spirituality: "I have peace offerings with me; this day have I payed my vows" (v.14). She reasons that "the goodman is not at home, he is gone a long journey: he hath taken a bag of money with him, and will come home at the day appointed" (v.19,20). This is almost certainly the basis of Christ's parable of the talents, revealing that the reasoning of the one talent man was that Christ was not physically around, therefore he need not develop. Thus that man does not represent just the lethargic Christian; but the man who consciously indulges in sin because he cannot feel the Lord's presence. "The goodman" is further equated with Christ in Mt.20:11. Notice the emphasis in the three Proverbs passages mentioned on the words of the woman being her means of attraction. Prov.7:21 is explicit: "With her much fair speech (cp. the serpent again, and 2 Cor.11:3; Rom.16:18, which connect the fair speaking, the whore, the serpent and the Judaizers) she caused him to yield". Words are a reflection of the mind (Mt.12:34), again indicating that the woman represented an epitomy of fleshly thinking. The parable of the prodigal son is clearly meant to show the path which we all take whenever we sin. The women upon whom he wasted his (spiritual) substance represent our giving way to sin in its various forms (Lk.15:13).
The good gift
Again, James warns us not to err in thinking that God is leading us into sin by stressing that "every good gift and every perfect gift (gift of perfection) is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights" (v.17). The gift that leads to perfection must be that of the written word, replacing as it did the temporary ministry of the miraculous gifts (1 Cor.13:8-10). This coming down of the "good gift" (cp. "the good word of God", Heb.6:5) is parallel with the gift of wisdom in v.5, which gift is further expanded in 3:15-17: "The wisdom that is from above is first pure (cp. "the words of the Lord are pure"; "Thy word is very pure", Ps.12:6; 119:140), then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits". Thus the effect of asking for wisdom (1:5) is to be liberally given the gift of responding to the word so that it cultivates a fullness of spiritual fruits in us (1:17; 3:17). The gift of wisdom produces a fullness ("full of...") of characteristics which recall the moral characteristics of God's Name as declared to Moses: "Merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant (cp. "full of good fruits") in goodness and truth, keeping mercy..." (Ex.34:6,7). The R.V. describes Yahweh as a God "full of" these things. Thus the word through developing those characteristics in us leads to God's Name being upon us and God being manifested to us.
The gift of the word "cometh down from the Father". 'Coming down' is the language of God manifestation- e.g. God "came down" upon Mount Sinai in a mighty theophany; Jesus "came down from Heaven"; God "came down" to destroy Sodom and Babel. It is through the word 'coming down' into our hearts that we are able to manifest God. Thus Jn.3:5 speaks of being born again (lit. 'from above')- which 1 Pet.1:23 interprets as being born of the word. There are many references to the word resulting in men carrying the Name of God and thus manifesting Him: consider Jer.15:16 AVmg.; Dt.18:18,19; Jn.17:6; 10:34-36, and how much the prophets manifested God because they spoke the word of God, so that their words were the word of God. More on this in Digression 5.
Father of lights
"The Father of lights" (v.17) is another indication that the good and perfect gift which comes from Him is connected with the word, which is "a light unto my path" (Ps.119:105,130; Prov.6:23). Another connection in this context starts in 1 Jn.1:5: "This then is the message (word) which we have heard of Him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all". The prologue of John's Gospel is closely linked to that of his epistles. The parallel to 1 Jn.1:5 is Jn.1:4 "In him (the word) was life, and the life was the light of men". Thus the Father of lights is the source of the logos-word, which is the gift that can be given to us.
"With whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning". James again puts his finger on the feelings we have in those moments of weakness- there is "no variableness, neither shadow of turning" in the amount of spiritual strength He gives us from the word. It is tempting to think that the power of the word does vary, to despair that Bible reading can ever affect the likelihood of us overcoming sin. If there is no variableness in the power of the word, then it follows that any weakness to temptation is solely our fault. Again, the ideal standard is hinted at in a wonderfully gentle way- if the power of the word is constant and able to overcome every spiritual temptation, then there is the possibility- theoretically, sadly?- that we should have the power now to overcome every temptation. Failure or success is in our own hands.
"The gifts and calling of God are without repentance" (change of mind, Rom.11:29). The gift of God is now in the word, and the calling of God is also done largely through it. Several of the Old Testament references concerning the unchanging nature of God are in the context of speaking of the unchanging word of God:
- In Num.23:19 Balaam assures Balak that God will not suddenly give him a different prophetic word after the one he had just given, and that the prophecy he had just given would be surely fulfilled: "God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the Son of man, that He should repent: hath He said, and shall He not do it? Or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?".
- Later Saul thought that the word of God was variable, in that he doubted whether the command to totally destroy the Amalekites still stood. Samuel rebuked him for not "obeying the voice of the Lord...the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for He is not a man, that He should repent" (1 Sam.15:22,29).
- Mal.3:6 "I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed"- because of the eternal covenant (cp. the word) which God made with Israel.
- Titus 1:2,3: "In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised...in...His word through preaching". It may well be that in His defining of the gift as the word, James is preparing the way for his readers to accept the changeover in the manifestation of the gifts from the miraculous to the ministry of the word.
In contrast to the process of conceiving sin explained in v.14,15, "Of His own will begat He us with the word of Truth" (v.18). The child of God is born "Not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (Jn.1:13)- i.e. of the will of God. The act of intercourse which leads to human conception is the ultimate and strongest expression of the fleshly will of man. The same immense drive and will is possessed by God, who channels it through His word to result in the conception of spiritual people. What tremendous power there is therefore in that word! Note the comparison: "Of his own lust...of His own will...the word" (v.14,18).
"Being born again, not of corruptible (human) seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God" (1 Pet.1:23). Jn.3:3 says that the new birth comes from above- James 1:17 describes the good and perfect gift of the word as being "from above". Notice that the word of God is connected with the will of God. Perhaps our faith in our prayers is militated against by our resigned 'If it be Thy will' being so liberally sprinkled in them. Generally the Biblical examples of prayer- which presumably guide our approach- are conspicuous by their omitting of 'If it be Thy will...'. They seem to request things in total faith- and normally receive them. Even Paul in recounting his experience of having three prayers go unanswered (2 Cor.12:8) does not make any specific comment about the will of God. If we have the word of God in our minds and guiding our prayers, then we will be praying according to the will of God, "in the Holy Spirit". John 15:7 is explicit: "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you". Jesus doesn't say that our prayers will be answered according to God's will, but according to our own will. This is because the word guiding our thoughts results in our will becoming identical with that of God, in so far as it is guided by the word. Again, an ideal is being suggested to us- a wholly spiritual mind filled with the word will result in a far more powerful prayer life. It is by birth of the word, therefore, that we become a son of God, part of the Divine family; and Jesus said "Whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in Heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother" (Mt.12:50)- thus equating the will of God and the word. Similarly Jn.7:17 "If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine" (in the word). Even more fundamentally, the covenant name of God is 'I will be who I will be' (Ex.3:14 R.V.mg)- and God executes the will that is intrinsic in His very Name through His word. Thus as we saw earlier in considering v.17, a proper response to the word leads us to bear the name of God.
"A kind of firstfruits"
"That we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures" (v.18)- as a result of the word's action on our mind, in the context of James 1, these firstfruits must be a state of mind. "His creatures" would therefore be the spirit-bodies that are the ultimate end of God's creation. However, we can have the firstfruits of that state now in our minds, which if they are spiritual are the only part of our bodies which are experiencing the Kingdom life now, albeit in a limited form. An alternative approach to this verse is to view the "creatures" as the whole multitude of the redeemed, of which the present believers are only "the firstfruits". In this case, all the faithful who have been influenced acceptably by "the word of truth" are only a small foretaste of the many who will be so converted in the Millennium. This raises fascinating questions about the population and nature of the Millennium, and indicates the relatively small number of the faithful in the world's previous history.
Because of the glorious power of the word as outlined in the previous verses, "Wherefore (therefore), my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear" that powerful word. The idea of running swiftly in eager response to the word is quite a common Biblical idiom (2 Thess.3:1; Ps.119:32,60; Hab.2:2; Amos 8:11,12; Dan.12:4). Inevitably some practical examination of our eagerness of response to the word has to be made. How frequently do we rise up from our readings with an eager resolve to do something practical, to make some subtle change in our character? How often do our minds burn and race within us as we chase connections and themes through Scripture (cp. Lk.24:32) and God's word falls open to us? Or are we content to dash through "The readings" on the way to work, or leave them to the dog end of the day? God and the Angels no doubt look eagerly to those parts of the day when we read the word as their opportunity to guide and teach us, to strengthen us against the flesh. What a despite to them if our minds are somewhere else as we read- if we bother doing the readings at all that day.
The wrath of man
The practical effects of swiftly hearing this powerful word are to make us "slow to speak, slow to wrath" (v.19). Along with many other examples in James, this definitely alludes to the Proverbs- in this case 10:19 and 17:27 for "slow to speak", and 14:29 for "slow to wrath". The context in these passages is that "instruction...reproof(10:17)... knowledge... understanding (17:27) ...understanding" (14:29) lead to the control of speech and wrath. All these things are true concerning the word- the ultimate source of reproof (2 Tim.3:16,17) and understanding. This is exactly the context of James 1- by being "swift to hear" the spiritual strength which is in the word, we find the strength in practical terms to be "slow to speak, slow to wrath". It may be that James is alluding to Moses being "slow of speech, and of a slow tongue"- i.e. rather quiet, unsure of his words. Hence God reassured him: "I will teach thee what thou shalt say" (Ex.4:10-12). This would be specially relevant to James' persecuted Jewish readership; telling them to 'be like Moses' in his quiet speaking.
"The wrath of man (i.e. wrath as the expression of his feelings uncontrolled by the word) worketh not the righteousness of God" (v.20). The implication is that the word making us "slow to wrath" does work the righteousness of God- i.e. the word works or develops the righteous attributes of God within us, e.g. being "slow to wrath". This is a specific characteristic of God's Name (Ps.103:8;145:8); thus the word gives us God's Name (see Digression 5). In a similar way, the spiritual trial of our faith "worketh patience" (1:3)- another aspect of "the righteousness of God". In this case, we see that the word has the same effect upon us as trials. For more examples of this,see Digression 2. Our present tribulation "worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Cor.4:17). 1 Jn.2:29 is also relevant- "every one that doeth righteousness is born of God", which James says is by the word. Thus the word of God acting on a man "worketh..the righteousness of God". There are so many allusions in James to the Sermon on the mount that the mention of the righteousness of God probably links with the only time Jesus mentioned this, in Mt.6:31-33: "Take no thought, saying, What shall we eat..but seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness". Thus seeking God's righteousness is contrasted with over-concern about food. In the wilderness Jesus made the contrast between not living by bread alone, but by every word of God. Thus living by the word of God is associated with seeking the righteousness of God. It is also stressed that we only receive ('work') the righteousness of God by faith (Rom.3:22; 10:3-6; Phil.3:9)- which comes from the word (Rom.10:17- which is in the context of a whole chapter showing that righteousness comes by faith). For more examples of the action of the word leading to God's righteousness being imputed to us, see Digression 5.
Receiving the word
"Wherefore lay apart all filthiness, and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word"(v.21). Receiving the word so that it makes us "slow to speak, slow to wrath" is helped by laying apart "filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness". The Greek phrase translated "lay apart" is elsewhere used always concerning forsaking the practical, specific characteristics of the flesh (Heb.12:1; 1 Pet.2:1; Eph.4:25; Rom.13:12). We have seen so far that James is emphasizing that it is through the new birth from the word that this can be achieved. 1 Pet.2:1 also tells us to lay aside fleshly characteristics by being "newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word" (v.2). Similarly Eph.4:23-25: "Be renewed in the spirit of your mind...put on the new man (created by the word)...putting away lying" (etc). Rom.13:12,13 gives us the greatest motivation to make this effort to so apply the word: "The night is far spent, the day (of the Kingdom) is at hand; let us therefore cast off (same word "lay apart") the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as (if we are) in the day" of the Kingdom. Thus we can therefore live now to some degree as we will in the Kingdom- by using the word to cast off the flesh and put on spiritual attributes, resulting in us walking (living in our day to day lives) as if we are in "the day" of the Kingdom.
The word acting on our minds should help us lay apart all "superfluity of naughtiness". "Superfluity" is from the same word translated "abundance" in Mt.12:34 "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh". It must have occurred to us all at some time that the command to bring "into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor.10:5) seems impossible to achieve. There are so many thoughts which are necessary in our secular lives, they cannot all be brought around to Christ. However, the word "abundance" means 'that which is over and above the necessary'. The point of bringing our thoughts to Christ is so that our words will be Christlike, and as our thoughts lead to our words, we must control them. The context of 2 Cor.10:5 is Paul justifying the apparently hard words he was having to use to the Corinthians- he assured them that in practice he was bringing all his thoughts captive to Christ, therefore his words were not the outpouring of unspiritual bitterness. Thus only those thoughts which are "of the abundance" of the heart (the mind) control our words; those thoughts which are over and above our necessary ones. James is saying that this "abundance" or "superfluity" of wrong thinking ("naughtiness") can be displaced by the word.
"Receive with meekness the engrafted word" to enable this, James advises. "Engrafted" means 'implanted', or more literally 'something placed inside you which springs up'. This must have some reference to the sower parable- "The seed is the word", and if we are to receive the word meekly, James must be likening us to the ground of the parable- in this case, 'meek' ground. Are we meek to the word- 'quiet, mild', as 'meek' implies? It is so true that a settled, quiet mind is vital if we are to let the word really act on us.
There may also be a reference back to Romans 11, where Paul reasons that the Gentiles had been grafted into the Israelitish olive tree. Having a Jewish readership, James is maybe gently hinting that all men, including Jews, need the word grafted into them.
So far in this study we have spoken in general terms about "the word" being the power of righteousness, which comes down from above and germinates spiritual life within us. This verse 21 gives us some hints as to a more precise definition. We have noted the clear allusion to the parable of the sower- the "engrafted"/ implanted word-seed. "The word of truth" of v.18 "begat" us, which the almost parallel passage in 1 Pet.1:23 says is the seed-word of God. The word in the parable of the sower is defined as "the word of the Kingdom" (Mt.13:19)- i.e. the Gospel of the Kingdom. The sower parable shows the response of various people to the Gospel which they initially hear. James 1:21 continues by saying that this word is "able to save your souls". This recalls a number of passages which say that it is the message of the basic Gospel which saves our souls:
"To you is the word of this salvation sent" (Acts 13:26).
"The Gospel of Christ...is the power of God unto salvation" (Rom.1:16)
"I declare unto you the Gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received (cp. "receive with meekness the engrafted word")...by which also ye are saved; if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you" (1 Cor.15:1,2); this Gospel which would save them was centred around the basic truths of the resurrection and second coming of Christ which Paul goes on to reiterate in 1 Cor.15. One of the conclusions arising from this is that an ecclesia should regularly hold meetings of some sort which re-iterate the basics of the Gospel. There really is power in them, to save our souls.
The subsequent warning "Be ye doers of the word" in the sense of bridling the tongue and visiting the sick (v.22,26,27) implies that "the word" of the Gospel included practical matters- something hinted at in many other passages. The believers to whom James was writing had already received the implanted word-seed of the Gospel at their conversion- but James implies that they needed to keep on receiving it. 1 Pet.1:22,23 connects loving "one another with a pure heart fervently" with "being born again...by the word of God". Thus again the new birth is not just a question of accepting doctrine in the sense of 'first principles', but also the doctrine of practical Christian living. Thus it needs continued intercourse with the word to create a stream of new life. On a practical note, let us remember that we should get this power of new life entering us from re-hearing the basic Gospel as much as from the deeper parts of our Bible study. Thus Sunday evenings at 6:30 should not be a session of sleepily having our ears tickled with the fact we have the truth about man's mortality, the nature of Christ, the Kingdom etc.- but one more chance to eagerly receive that word of power and dynamic new life. Notice that the word can "save your souls", showing that the soul does not always just refer to the life or body/creature, but can also refer to our spiritual selves, which the word is able to save or preserve (see Digression 3).
Theory and practice
Having talked in theory so much about the power of the word, James now warns: "But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves" (v.22). One of the easiest forms of self deceit is to hear the correct exposition of the word and feel that therefore we are on the right track towards the Kingdom. Yet a comparison with v.27 indicates that it is quite possible to be "spotted by the world" as well as being a hearer of the word. This must be something we are especially liable to, hearing as many of us do up to three times a week the correct exposition of the word at church meetings. There must be a reference back to Rom.2:13: "for not the hearers of the Law are just (ified) before God, but the doers of the Law shall be justified". Thus again James is thinking of the Jewish nature of his readership, and leading them to redirect their zeal for keeping the Law to zeal for receiving and doing "the engrafted word" of Christ's Gospel. "Deceiving" implies 'reasoning'- and again, James has his finger on the pulse of human nature. If we ask ourselves, 'Do I reason with myself that I am doing the word when actually I'm only hearing it' the instinctive answer is, 'No, I'm not aware I do anyway'. The reasoning or "deceiving" goes on in our deep subconscious. "Doer" is also translated "poet", in the sense of a performer of a written script. Thus Paul speaks of "how to perform that which is good (i.e. the law/word of God, v.16) I find not" (Rom.7:18). This theme of self-deception is continued in v.26- if a man "seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue (he) deceiveth his own heart". Words are a product of the mind (Lk.6:45), and thus to bridle the tongue is to bridle the mind, which can only be done through the application of the word. If this is not done, then we deceive ourselves- which v.21 says we do by hearing and not doing the word. Thus to be a doer of the word in this case is to apply the word to our minds, to consciously make the mental effort to let the word control our thinking and words when in a provocative situation. Therefore being a doer of the word does not necessarily involve any physical work.
The real works
There are other examples of 'works' not being physical actions but mental effort to apply the word to our minds:
- "This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent" (Jn.6:29- cp. Rom.10:17 "Faith cometh by hearing...the word of God"). Prov.12:22 (Septuagint) speaks of the man that "worketh faith".
- "The work of the Law written in their hearts" (Rom.2:15)
- Sin "did work in our members" (Rom.7:5)
- God "hath begun a good work in you" (Phil.1:6)- i.e. in your spiritual development
- "Fruitful in every good work...patience...longsuffering... joyfulness" (Col.1:10,11)
- A man carefully examining himself by the word, "the perfect law of liberty", is "a doer of the work" (James 1:25).
- We will be judged according to our works (Rev.22:12)- and our spiritual development rather than physical achievements will be of paramount interest to our Judge.
- Those who believe false doctrine about Christ's nature should be shunned because "He that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds", i.e. his beliefs (2 Jn.11,7). A like example is in Rev.2:6,15: "The deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate...the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate".
- Similarly Jesus worked "the works of Him that sent me" (Jn.9:4; 17:4) not just in miracles and good deeds, but in developing that perfect character until He "finished the work (of saving man) which Thou gavest me to do" .
- "The works of Abraham" (Jn.8:39) in the context were to believe in Christ.
All this is part of the great Bible theme that our thoughts really are reckoned as works by God. In the light of this housebound housewives and hard working bread winners can take courage that their lack of 'works' physically achieved is totally appreciated by the Father. With this definition of works it is no longer necessary to feel we can only work for God at weekends or in the evenings- or after the children are asleep. Our whole life can be one of active, working service. But to inspire those works, constant contact with the word must be made. The odd glances at the pocket Bible during the day, or the Commandments of Christ on the wall, will be worth their weight in golden faith in the great day.
The man who hears the word but does not do it "Is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass (mirror): for he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was" (v.23,24).
Hearing the word but not doing it is a sermon on the mount allusion- those who heard those sayings but did not do them were likened to the man building his house on the sand (Mt.7:26). In the same way as he thought that he was building and was doubtless quite pleased at his progress, so the man who glanced in the mirror thought all was well with his spiritual development. The acquiring of knowledge ('hearing') can give the impression that we are progressing; but practice ('doing') is the real foundation. It is sad that the ever deepening level of our community's Bible scholarship is not always matched by such 'doing'.
Hearing the word is likened to glancing in a mirror and then going on with life, immediately forgetting that vision. Like the quick glance at the mirror, straighten the tie, brush the hair, off to the office. Maybe this equates with the sleepy, half awake doing of the readings in the morning and then off into the day with not a further thought about our real spiritual figure.
"Beholding" means 'observing fully'- the man's mistake was in his immediate forgetting of the image he saw. Thus he was a very careful hearer- because it is not always that we apply ourselves so much to the word that it is as if we are staring into our own face, observing fully our real spiritual self. In the previous analogy, here is someone who got up, washed, dressed and did his readings at the table with a concordance, and was really helped in those minutes to examine himself. But Bible study was only part of his life- he "Straightway forgot". Surely none of us can feel complacent at this challenge of James?
Notice how the word is likened to a mirror- our study of it should always lead to some form of self-examination and assessment as we compare ourselves against the deep things of the Spirit. Thus our studies should revolve around the application of the word to our moment by moment spiritual lives, rather than the mental gymnastics with Scripture at one extreme and empty platitudes at the other, which seem to characterize so much of our communal Bible study. The idea of the word being represented by a mirror occurs again in 1 Cor.13:8-12. Verse 8 describes the withdrawal of the miraculous spirit gifts, and their replacement by the completed word- "that which is perfect", v.10 (cp. 2 Tim.3:16,17). Paul then contrasts the dispensation of the Spirit gifts and the word: "Now we see through (look into) a glass, darkly; but then face to face". Thus the dispensation of the word would enable him to see a clear reflection of himself- "Then shall I know (myself) even as also I am known" (1 Cor.13:12). The implication of these few words are tremendous- through using the completed word to examine ourselves, it is possible for us to see ourselves as God sees us- to know ourselves even as God knows us. Paul expresses his lack of full knowledge in 1 Cor.4:4: "I know nothing by myself (therefore) am I not hereby justified". The context is Paul's countering of the Corinthians who claimed to have examined and judged him. Paul is saying that he is not qualified to fully examine and judge himself, so therefore cannot comment. But now, with the completed revelation compared with the partial understanding of only some facets of God's revelation to man given by the ministry of the miraculous gifts (1 Cor.13:9), we are able to achieve a fuller self-examination. James' description of the word as the "perfect law" (1:25) strengthens the impression that he is consciously alluding to 1 Cor.13 (cp. "that which is perfect" concerning the completed word); as if he is preparing his readers for how they should use the completed word which he, like Paul, knew in advance would soon be available.
The word enables us to 'behold' ('Observe fully') our "natural face". "Natural" is from the Greek 'gennas'- to regenerate, conceive, gender, beget. This must connect with the concept of v.17,18 and the parallel 1 Peter 1:23- we are conceived by the word entering us. The man James is speaking of looked at his "natural face". This could imply at least two things- he examines the state of spiritual regeneration he has reached from the word; or he looks back to his initial spiritual birth, how he was at his first 'genesis' by the word of the Kingdom when it developed within him for the first time. The same idea is picked up in 3:6; the tongue "defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell". Our thoughts lead to the words of the tongue. Thus ultimately an undisciplined mind "setteth on fire the course of nature"- unless our thoughts are restrained by the word, our 'genesis' ("nature") so far developed by the word, and our initial spiritual strength developed by the word of the Gospel, will be destroyed, "set on fire" (6). Strong interprets "course" as meaning 'A circuit of effects'- the circuit of effects due to our 'genesis'("nature") will be destroyed or broken unless we make a conscious effort to control the mind. We have seen that the 'genesis' is a result of the action of the word on a man's heart. This creates a 'circuit of effects'- hence 3:6 AVmg. speaks of the "wheel of nature" (the 'genesis') in the sense of something continuous. Surely the implication is that once the word starts to take effect, it initiates a circular, upwards spiral of spirituality- spiritual strength leading to spiritual strength, a certain level of appreciation of the word steadily leading to a higher level. For more examples of this, see Digression 7. However, this "course of nature" can be broken by not making a conscious effort to control the mind and the words which follow from it (in the context of James 3:6), and of not making the effort to continue beholding our "natural face" in the mirror of the word, and letting the word act on the results of our self-examination (7).
The bane of knowledge
That the word should lead to an ever-increasing level of self-examination and recognition of the urgency of our need to spiritually improve is also hinted at in 1 Jn.1:10: "If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us"- implying that the more the word is in us, the more we recognize the degree to which we have sinned. But notice it is not just a reading of the word that results in this- seeing that the Jews to whom Paul partly wrote Romans (8), for all their Bible knowledge and ability to assimilate the detailed Old Testament allusions Paul makes in Romans, were of the opinion they could "continue in sin that grace may abound" (Rom.6:1)- i.e. they reasoned that whatever they did was automatically blotted out by reason of being in Christ (and Jewish?). "We make Him (God) a liar" must refer back to the serpent in Eden, who also lacked the word of God in him, thus effectively leading him to the conclusion that Adam and Eve could not sin, even if they consciously disobeyed the commandments. Saying we have not sinned is equivalent to saying that we do not need Christ- both statements make God a liar (1 Jn.1:10 cp. 5:10); which again was the implication of the serpent reasoning. Paul picks this point up in 2 Cor.11:3, where he connects the reasoning of the serpent with that of the Judaizers, who also argued that Christ was not vital for salvation. Eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge made Adam and Eve aware of their sin- as does eating of the word of knowledge in our day. Jn.15:22; Lk.12:47,48 and many other passages clearly teach that the more knowledge of the word a man has, the more aware he is of his sins, and therefore the more answerable to judgement.
However, the very nature of life in this present world appears to make it impossible to permanently "continue therein" ("continue"= 'to stand beside'). But things were even more difficult for the first century believers: "Whoso...continueth (looking) therein (into the word)...being not a forgetful hearer" (v.25). Thus looking at the word and hearing the word are paralleled. The only access to the word by the average believers was probably by hearing it read publicly. The ability to read would not have been widespread, and copies of the scrolls not widely available (hence the ministry of the miraculous spirit gifts to provide the word of prophecy and its interpretation). Other passages refer to this hearing of the word through public reading of it in the ecclesia: Acts 13:27; 15:21 (cp. James 2:2 AVmg.); 2 Cor.3:15; Col.4:16; 1 Thess.5:27; Rev.1:3; 2:7,11. The believers should hear the word spoken or read and look into it continually- i.e. keep it in mind, meditate upon it. Thus 1:19 encourages them to be "swift to hear" the word of God- not to mentally doze through those all-important meetings of the ecclesia when the word was read. Thus James never intended these words to be read as meaning 'You must walk around with your head in a Bible all day'- he was too practical to advocate that. But he was offering an even greater challenge- to live each day continually looking into the things of the word in one's mind, with "the eyes of your understanding being (open)", Eph.1:18. We who can read and have convenient access to the written word have so much more opportunity- but we seem to lack the degree of mental spiritual alertness to the word that James is speaking of. Surely every Christian who can afford one should have a pocket Bible close at hand during the day and frequently refer to it- even for a few brief seconds in the hour. But above all, we must strive to achieve that continual mental looking into the things of the word. There is ample evidence to suggest that many of us have trotted through the 'readings' every day for years without catching the fire of personal Bible study- content to rely on the reflections of those who have gone before. A whole host of other conscience prickers could be listed:
- As we sit at a baptism service are we "swift to hear" Romans 6 yet once again? Do we all bother to open our Bibles and follow?
- It has been proved beyond argument that to pay attention to information one should preferably read for oneself rather than just listen- and also take notes. As an ecclesia goes on through time, there should not be an ever-diminishing amount of page rustling at our meetings. Are there pens and notebooks in the hands of the average Christian congregation?
- Is there a dearth of questions and extra comments after Bible classes? What exactly do those stony silences indicate?
But he who continues looking into "the perfect law", "this man shall be blessed in his deed"- and that in itself means that James is not setting an impossible standard. It is realistic for a man to achieve it. Note how the continual looking into and applicatipon of the word is "his deed". We have earlier commented how 'deeds' and 'works' can refer to the mental effort made in daily life, rather than specific physical actions.
Word of freedom
Notice the reference to "the law of liberty"- another gentle dig at his Jewish readers, reminding them of "the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free...be not entangled again with the yoke of (Mosaic) bondage" (Gal.5:1). Other references to "liberty" are clearly in the context of liberty from the Mosaic Law, and they also have indirect hints at our liberty being because of a word ("law") of liberty:
- "We are not children of the bondwoman (the Law) but of the free" (Gal.4:31). We are children by being born of the word of God (James 1:18; 1 Pet.1:23). Thus "the free" is the free word of liberty.
- "Ye have been called unto liberty...(to) walk in the spirit" (Gal.5:13,16)- i.e. in a way of life guided by the Spirit word (Jn.6:63 etc.)
- "As free...(doing) the will of God" (1 Pet.2:16,15)- which is in the word (James 1:18; Jn.1:13)
- "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" (2 Cor.3:17)- the Lord's Spirit is in the hearts of His people who are influenced by the Spirit-word.
- "The truth (the word- Jn.17:17) shall make you free...the servant abideth not in the house for ever (alluding to Hagar being cast out, representing the casting out of the law, Gal.4:30). If the Son therefore (i.e. because the law was being cast out) shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (Jn.8:32,35,36). That freedom comes from the Truth (Jn.8:32), which is in the word.
Now it may be argued that if "the law of liberty" (to return to James 1:25) is the words of Jesus and the New Testament, then that part of Scripture is far more spiritually powerful than the Old Testament, particularly the Law. Why not drastically re-jig the Bible Companion to concentrate on the New Testament? Two answers present themselves:
- "The spirit of Christ was in (the prophets)" (1 Pet.1:11). The Spirit of Christ was in them, but it was only there for our benefit who came after Christ (1 Pet.1:12). Thus the prophets "searched diligently" for the meaning of their prophecies (1 Pet.1:10)- the implication being that they were unsuccessful because the purpose of the prophecies was for our benefit not for theirs- "not unto themselves...they did minister the things, which are now reported (explained) unto you" (1 Pet.1:12). We have shown that the Spirit-word is the law of liberty, which is contrasted to the Mosaic law or word of bondage. The contrast is not specifically made between the word and the Mosaic law, but between the Spirit word and the Mosaic Law. Thus it may be that the Spirit in the sense of a power of righteousness that can change a man's mind was only released fully from the Old Testament word when it was read by believers after Christ. Notice how the parallel with us looking into the law of liberty in 1 Peter is in 1:12 concerning the Angels desiring to look into the word. This is a parallel with 1:10, describing how the prophets desired to look into the word. Thus seeing that prophets and Angels have unsuccessfully tried to look into the word, we should grasp the opportunity we have. This parallel show that the "law of liberty" was also the prophetic word of the Old Testament which the prophets tried to "look into".
- There is considerable evidence that the power of the Old Testament word was opened by the death and resurrection of Christ, when He became "the Lord the Spirit" (2 Cor.3:17,18 RV), thus enabling us to be changed from the Mosaic glory to the Christian glory- "From glory to glory...by the Spirit of the (risen) Lord" (cp. Jn.1:16,17). In passing, it is worth considering whether Paul's other reference to contrasting types of glory also has reference to the Mosaic/ Christian system comparison- "the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another...so also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption" (1 Cor.15:40,42). Thus Paul would be likening the present mortal state of our bodies to the earthy (terrestrial) Jewish system, compared to the glory of the spiritual heavenlies in Christ.
Of milk and meat
The man who keeps mental hold of the Spirit of the word in his daily life "Shall be blessed in his deed". This must be alluding to Lk.11:28 "Blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it". Again, the hearing of the word was a literal hearing, as Jesus had been speaking orally to the people. Thus James' interpretation of keeping the word was to continually look into it in one's mind and let it have the effect of self-examination upon us. The preceding verse records the comment "Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked" (Lk.11:27). Jesus is saying that the more important spiritual equivalent of this is to "hear the word of God". Thus being breast fed is likened by Jesus to hearing and keeping the word. In Peter's language: " As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word" (1 Pet.2:2). It is only the spiritually young who should feed on the milk of the word (1 Cor.3:2; Heb.5:12,13). Those to whom Jesus spoke about the sucking of breasts being like hearing and keeping the word were also spiritually young, having only just heard the word. James 1:24,25 is saying that the man who continually looks at his natural face in the mirror of hearing and keeping the word will be blessed for his effort. Lk.11:27,28 is saying that the spiritually young who as newborn babes keep hearing and keeping the word will be blessed. Remember that it was suggested that the "natural" (Genesis-ed) face of the man could refer to his recently spiritually born self. This would fit the connections with Lk.11:27 nicely. Thus James implies that there is an especial temptation for those newly converted or spiritually conceived by the word to soon give up their zeal for the word and to stop carefully examining their own position in the light of the word. The parable of the sower puts this in black and white. Our 'instruction' of candidates for baptism through correspondence courses and personal discussion sessions can often end at baptism- our provision of the milk of the word ends as soon as the baby is born!
Keeping and doing
"If (we) know these things, happy (blessed) are (we) if (we) do them" (Jn.13:17). Also worth mentioning Lk.8:21 too: "My mother and my brethren are these which hear the word of God and do it". By being born again by hearing, doing, keeping and continually looking at the word, we take on the family likeness- Jesus can feel to us as to a mother or brother. These things help us appreciate the real spirit of the frequent commands to "Keep my commandments, and do them" (Lev.22:31). This implies that keeping and doing the word are different. God is not so much looking for individual cases of us 'doing' the word in the sense of occasionally obeying a highly specific command- but for us to "keep" the word in the sense of continually keeping it in mind in our lives, so that as a consequence we 'do' the specific commands when necessary. The copious parallels between James 1 and 1 Peter 1 further illuminate the looking into the word of this v.25; the parallel is Peter's description of the Cherubim Angels earnestly looking down into the mercy seat in 1 Pet.1:12, as if paralleling that supreme place of God manifestation with the Word.
The gentle reminders of the need to leave Judaism are continued in v.26 "If any man among you seem to be religious". The Greek word translated "religious" is elsewhere always used in the context of the Mosaic law; James is implying that they were not properly keeping the spirit of the Mosaic law if they "bridled not (their) tongue". This idea of bridling the tongue is picked up again in 3:2-4, where James says that we put bits in the horses' mouths to control them, "but the tongue can no man tame", i.e. bridle (3:8). "No man" here must mean 'no ordinary man of the flesh', since James 1:26 says that the believer must bridle his tongue. In the preceding verses in James 1, James has been talking about 'doing' the word in practice rather than just theoretically receiving it. The prime example of this, he continues, is whether you can bridle your tongue. This is because our thoughts lead to our words, and therefore to bridle the tongue is to control the mind- and this can only be done through the conscious application of the word. This is the main 'doing' of the word. Again there is the warning against semi-spirituality; seeming to be religious.
Ps.32:8,9 provides the basis for James 1:26: "I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide (mg. 'Counsel') thee...be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding: whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, lest they come near unto thee". Thus having the instruction, teaching and understanding of God should replace having a bridle or bit. God does not want to force our tongues and bodies to obey Him- but for us to effect this by our application of His word to our minds. Thus the word is the means of bridling our tongues and therefore our minds- our whole lives. Note too that a bridle is a two-way thing. It stops the horse approaching the rider in an ungainly and painful way. The action of the word on our minds should lead to us similarly being helped in our approach to God. The man who thinks he has his mind bridled but whose words belie this "Deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain" (v.26- cp. Jer.17:9). To be "Double minded" (1:8; 4:8) is thus to have what we think is our 'spiritual' heart or mind deceiving our real heart- that of the flesh, "his own heart".
"Pure ('clean') religion" may refer to the system of religion that comes as a result of "the washing of water by the word" (Eph.5:26). This religion is also "undefiled"- possibly implying that to not let the word totally affect our lives is to allow ourselves to be defiled by our fleshly mind and desires. The sexual connotations of the word for "Undefiled" would suggest that passive laziness to apply the word is equivalent to active unfaithfulness against Christ. This pure and undefiled religion "Before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction" (v.27). The reference to God as the Father is in the context of v.17- "the Father of (the) light" of the word which came down to us.
We may well ask 'Why is God so especially concerned for "the fatherless and widows"'? Maybe because He had witnessed the emotional agony of His humanly fatherless Son, Jesus, and the broken heart of Mary on the Lord's death? There is a possible connection between this verse and John 14:18 where Jesus promises that he "Will not leave you orphans (fatherless- A.V. 'comfortless'): I will come to you" through the Holy Spirit Comforter, which was manifested firstly in the miraculous Spirit gifts and then in the written word. The ideas of God 'coming down' and 'visiting' people are common Old Testament idioms for God manifestation. Thus it may be that James is implying that in the same way as Jesus has visited us through the Spirit-word, so we should share the spiritual Comfort of the word with the fatherless and widows. We have noted the association between 'coming down' and the gift of the Spirit-word already in v.17, which provides the background for this v.27.
This pure religion is also to keep ourselves "Unspotted from the world". The words "pure", "undefiled..unspotted" are all the language of marriage. Because the notion of us being the bride of Christ, engaged to Him, seems so far above our feeble spirituality, it is tempting to think that the relationship between a man and his bride is just being used as a vague likeness of our relationship with Christ. But the glorious fact is that we are in absolute reality the typical bride of Christ! Intercourse with the world and fleshly mind is as bad as being unfaithful to our bridegroom- and almost on the night of our marriage, too. The comment is sometimes made that Christians are too dreary and weighed down by our sins. But bearing in mind the nature of our relationship to Jesus and His faithfulness unto death for us, it is not surprising that we are seriously worried about the continual failures which we have to admit to; these are equivalent to being unfaithful to Him. To balance this, there is the joy of receiving "every good and perfect gift" from our loving, truly merciful Father, the knowledge that He "upbraideth not" and is delighted by our strivings to truly develop spiritually; and the happiness ("blessedness") of the man who does try to keep the word in his heart. Whilst we need to be careful that we are not giving way to spiritual pride, there can be a sense of deep joy and peace at the little victories we slowly win against the flesh.
(1) See Neville Smart 'The Epistle of James' (C.M.P.A 1955); A.D.Norris 'Acts and Epistles' (Aletheia Books, 1989); John Martin 'James' (C.S.S.S., n.d.).
(2) The Greek word for "fall" in 1:2 only occurs in Lk.10:30 regarding the man falling among thieves- representing the inherent sins of human nature to which all men fall prey, and from which our Lord as the good Samaritan offers possibility of redemption.
(3) For more about the language of physical movement used in regard to sin- e.g. the ideas of 'falling' and 'leading'- see 'In Search Of Satan', p.27 (The Dawn, 1990).
Whole of James
Like James, Peter in both his letters is emphasizing the need to develop spiritual attributes in the light of the imminence of the Lord's coming; and he warns that false teachers would sidetrack them from the pursuit of real spirituality, which is a major theme of James.
(5) Is it theoretically possible through the power of the word to be perfect in God's sight to the same degree as our Lord was- at least momentarily? If we answer 'Yes', then the unique relationship between God and Jesus, and the fact that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself" is surely not appreciated. But if we answer 'No', in what sense was Christ our perfect example? Would God set before us a standard of perfection (e.g. "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect"), if He knows that we have no possibility of attaining it?
(6) Setting on fire is symbolic of destruction; see Jer.17:27; Jude 7 etc.
(7) See Arthur Gibson, 'The Wheel of Nature', The Testimony, Vol.44 (1974), p.295 for an excellent linguistic study of this.
(8) Note the Jewish context of Rom.1 and 2 and the constant allusions to the Old Testament to prove that Jews are in the same spiritual state as Gentiles.