(Please read James 1:1-12)
The Epistle of James is a compact little book so neatly condensed that one can sit down and read it through in about twenty minutes. A good practice is to read each New Testament Epistle through at one sitting. To master any book of the Bible, one must read that Book continuously, repeatedly, and prayerfully.
The teaching in James is similar to that which Jesus taught. There are many likenesses to the Sermon on the Mount. One can easily see the influence of Jesus on the writings of James. The Book is easy to read. The sentences are short. The ideas are clear. The talk is straight and to the point. The instructions in this Book can be very helpful for each one of us.
The New Testament speaks of several men named “James.” Two of Jesus’ disciples were called “James” (Matthew 10:2-3). It is generally thought that it was James, the son of Joseph (and half brother of Jesus), who was the writer of the Epistle of James. During our Lord’s earthly ministry, His brothers did not believe on Him (John 7:5). Later, James was converted (1 Corinthians 15:7) and became a leader in the church at Jerusalem and had great influence over the Jewish believers (Acts 15:13-27). Historical evidence leads us to believe that it was this James who wrote the Epistle which we are about to study. (In final analysis, it is not a matter of great importance who wrote the Book. When we take a doctor’s prescription to a pharmacy to be filled, it doesn’t matter whether we know the name of the druggist or not. All that is important to us is that the prescription is filled and that it contains what is called for by the doctor who prescribed it. So it is with the Book of James. It comes to us with a message from God regardless of who wrote it).
Verse 1 is the greeting, with the writer’s name coming first, a practice which was customary in earlier letter writing. James does not speak of himself as “the brother of the Lord” or as “a pillar in the church.” He lets that to others (see Galatians 1:19 and 2:9). There is a lesson here in humility. James speaks of himself simply as “the servant of God” and “of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The word “servant” is an expression of devotion and of total submission to the Master. Great men never feel great. Small men never feel small.
The “twelve tribes” (in verse 1) was a synonym for the nation Israel. The phrase “scattered abroad” referred to Jews who were scattered over the Gentile world outside the boundaries of Palestine. James wrote initially to Jewish Christians who were residing outside of Palestine.
The first part of the first chapter of the Book of James deals with the theme of Stability in the Midst of Trial.
1. The Proper Attitude Toward Trials (1:2-4)
Verse 2 says “count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations.” The word “temptations” here does not suggest enticement to evil, but as verse 3 indicates, it speaks of outward trials. The root meaning of the Greek word is “testing.”
The word “divers” means “many-colored.” Trials are of many kinds (physical, domestic, financial, etc.). There is an infinite variety of trials. They change from day to day and vary from person to person: Poverty comes; friends disappoint; children bring heartaches; vigor and health deteriorate; feelings of inferiority torment us; death takes a loved one; plans for the future are shattered; people criticize when you are trying even to do a good job. These are typical examples of trials, and in our lesson today, we are given some help so that we know how to cope with them.
The word “joy” means that we are to rejoice in the midst of trials. We often fear testings of faith and almost instinctively shrink from them. Many times they are painful in nature (or at least unpleasant), but James says that trials should be considered a ground for joy. Jesus taught the same thing (Matthew 5:11-12), and the apostles practiced rejoicing in the midst of suffering trial (Acts 5:41).
Too many times we permit a wrong attitude toward our trials. We have a tendency to lament our lot in life. We pity ourselves. We compare ourselves with others who seem less troubled than we are. Just setting our jaws and gritting our teeth and holding on with a downcast spirit, is not the attitude our Lord wants us to have! Paul and Silas were shut up in a dark underground prison. They did not lament their punishment or count the experience a calamity. Instead, they sang praises to God in the middle of the night!
Verses 3-4 say, “Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience; but let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” In these verses, James gives some reasons why the Christian can rejoice in the midst of trials. The blood, sweat, and tears of the Christian life are for a purpose. They are one of the means by which we grow into the likeness of God.
1) Trials purify faith. Troubles and hardships afford an opportunity for proving the genuineness of faith. Trials are the means by which faith is tested and purified of its impurities. The soil (in a garden or on a farm) must be plowed and broken to bring forth a harvest of fruit.
2) Trials produce patience. The Greek word translated “patience” here has in it the idea of steadfastness and endurance. The word means “to keep on keeping on.” The Christian who comes through trials victoriously will be stronger and more unwavering as he faces the problems of living day after day.
3) Trials perfect character. The word “perfect” (in verse 4) speaks about full growth, maturity of character, and that which is whole and complete in all its parts. Most of us have some excellent traits, but at the same time, we are deficient in others. We may be as honest as can be, and yet lack kindness. One who is perfect is an “evenly balanced person,” like Job who was “perfect and upright” (Job 1:1).
In other words, trials are intended to toughen us and to prepare us for Heaven. And so it is proper to look at trials as occasions for joy. Fanny Crosby was blind because a careless doctor placed wrong bandages on her eyes when she was only 6 weeks old. But she refused to be pitied, and as a result she lived a useful and happy life. She said (in one of her poems):
Oh what a happy soul am I;
Although I cannot see;
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.
How many blessings I enjoy
That other people don’t;
To weep and sigh because I’m blind,
I cannot and I won’t.
These words express the proper Christian attitude toward trials.
2. The Spiritual Resources for Meeting Trials (1:5-8)
This section of James 1 mentions three things that are necessary for successfully meeting the trials of life—wisdom, prayer, and faith.
1) Wisdom—James speaks especially of the wisdom needed to bear one’s trials nobly. “Wisdom is good common sense about spiritual matters.” One gifted with wisdom is able to evaluate things. He can see the difference between something important and things that are not so important. Verse 5 says that we need to pray for this kind of discernment. The Christian needs wisdom in order to see his trials in their true light, and to make proper use of them.
2) Prayer—James does not say, “if you lack wisdom, go to the University, or speak with the philosophers.” Instead, he says, “Let him ask of God.” Wisdom is not primarily acquired from human teachers; wisdom is learned on our knees! We don’t understand how prayer works, but Christians know that in some strange way beyond our comprehension, the fervent prayers of a righteous person avail much. And God does not “upbraid” (scold, rebuke, coldly repel us) when we come to Him in prayer. God listens and responds when we pray.
3) Faith—Prayer is effective only when “asked in faith” (verse 6). We must believe that God is able to give and willing to give. We must simply take God at His word and act accordingly. When we pray, we must not oscillate between faith and unbelief—like a cork floating on the waves and bobbing up and down—and not getting anywhere. Verse 7 says that such an attitude bars the door of God’s blessing.
Verse 8 continues the description of the wavering man. The double-minded man is a person drawn in two opposite directions—one set on God, and the other set on the world. Bunyan (in Pilgrim’s Progress) describes him as “Mr. Facing-bothways.” He has a sense of what is right but a love for what is wrong. He is a vacillating person, inclined one moment to do good and the next moment to doubt and to become inclined toward evil.
When doubts come, we must try and look at things this way: “Suppose I am wrong in seeking to live for the Lord. Suppose there is no Heaven and Hell. Suppose it isn’t necessary to obey God’s Word. I am still going to take God at His word and trust Him until the end because I’ve got nothing to lose!”
3. Some Specific Examples of Trials (1:9-12)
James introduces (in these verses) two concrete examples of trials. We note the test of poverty in verse 9 and the test of prosperity in verses 10-11.
Verse 9 says. “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted.” The “brother of low degree” refers to the brother living in humble circumstances. Most in the early church were common ordinary poor people. And the poor man is not to be depressed by his poverty; he is to glory in his high spiritual position. In Christ, he has the standing of a son of God. He is a new creature; he is the partaker of a divine nature; he is heir to a heavenly mansion. The poor man can rejoice even though life seems to have treated him harshly, because in Christ he has an exalted position.
Verses 10-11 describe the case of the Christian who possesses earthly wealth. He is also to rejoice. He is to find joy and satisfaction, not in his worldly goods, but in the fact that he has been “made low” (verse 10). That is—the rich man must come to God by the same door as the poor man! He must humble himself and see himself as the same poor sinner as one who has less of this world’s goods. When he becomes a disciple of Jesus, he experiences a humbling of soul, and his pride in material wealth shatters.
The Apostle Paul came from a Jewish family that was highly cultured. He was brought up in a wealthy home. He later had to “learn” to be content with meager supplies (Philippians 4:11). He counted all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus. The mighty Saul of Tarsus was brought low! But he rejoiced because in losing earthly prestige and possessions, he gained eternal riches in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:7-10).
Verse 11 emphasizes the brevity and uncertainty of life, and encourages the rich to maintain a lowly mind in spite of their earthly plenty. James reminds those who have this world’s goods that the pomp of their condition is like the bloom of a wild plant. It fades away almost as soon as it displays its glory.
The poor man may find his lowly circumstances a sore trial, but instead of being depressed by his surroundings, he must think about his lofty spiritual privileges, and he must rejoice in the fact that he is rich in the things that really matter. The rich man, on the other hand, will find his riches a trial. He must rejoice in the fact that all who come to Christ, must come at the foot of the Cross, and even if he loses his wealth, he must be grateful that in this way he has escaped the temptations and dangers to which the rich are subjected.
Verse 12 talks about the reward for enduring trials. God says, “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation; for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord promised to them that love him.” Actually, for the person who meets trials in the right way—there are two rewards: 1) An inner blessedness now, and 2) A crown of life hereafter. The “crown of life” speaks of life in the world to come—life everlasting.
In Hebrews 12, we are given four attitudes one may take toward trials:
- Hebrews 12:5 — we may despise them.
- Hebrews 12:3 — we may faint under them.
- Hebrews 12:7 — we may coldly endure them (simply grit our teeth and bear them).
- Hebrews 12:11 — we may be exercised by them (accept them and learn the lessons they are intended to teach us).
We should bear trials with patience (like Eli). 1 Samuel 3:18 says, “It is the Lord; let him do what seemeth him good.”
We should bear trials with resignation (like Hezekiah). 2 Kings 20:19 says, “Good is the word of the Lord which thou hast spoken.”
We should bear trials with anticipation (like Job). Job 23:10 says, “When he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.”
The burden of our lesson today centers around the thought of bringing encouragement to face the afflictions and trials of life with a patient endurance, and encouragement to believe that trials can be transformed to our good. Many of us can confess that some of our greatest sufferings have brought us our greatest blessings. Some of our darkest sorrows have been transformed into our sweetest joys. The hymnwriter says:
“Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings, on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.”
Verse 2 of our lesson does not say that we should rejoice if trials come, but when they come. Trials will come. There is no “if” about it! But we can rejoice in trial because God will not permit more than we can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Years ago in a small print shop, a pair of little arms were stretched out, while the boy’s father piled up books for his small son to carry to the other end of the shop. As the small lad stood—and still waited for more books to be piled up on his arms—an onlooker said to the boy, “Are you sure you can carry more?” The young fellow looked up into the face of the man standing by and said, “Father knows how much I can carry.” Just so, God knows the limit of our endurance and He will not let us be tried and assailed beyond our power to endure. James says that true religion involves stability in trial. There is a sense in which a Christian is like a tea bag. He is not worth much unless he’s been through hot water.
As each of us faces the days ahead, and thinks about the path that may lie before us—let us remember that God is still behind the scenes and that He is in absolute control.