James 1:1–12comment (0)
August 29, 2013
By James Riley Strange
Related Scripture: James 1:1-12
Bible Studies for Life
Associate Professor of Religion, Samford University
The Pressure of Trials
If this James (a form of the Hebrew name Jacob) is Jesus’ brother (see Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3; Gal. 1:19; Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18), then this letter is one of the earliest writings in the New Testament. The author often reworks Jesus’ teachings without attributing them to Jesus, suggesting a period when people are passing on Jesus’ teachings by word of mouth. This James does not rest on a family relationship with the Lord but identifies himself only as a servant of God and Jesus Christ. “Slave” is a better translation, for James is not referring to a butler but to a human being who is bought and sold. He writes to Jewish followers of Jesus’ Way scattered throughout the Roman Empire (compare 1 Pet. 1:1). “Diaspora” or “Dispersion” emphasizes a link to the people of Israel and the idea that they are aliens where they live. Their true home is the coming kingdom (although James does not use that word).
“Brothers” is really “brothers and sisters.” “Trials of any kind” refers to trials so serious that one wishes to abandon the faith (see 1:6; 5:1–6, 7–11). James’ fellow believers are facing persecution. Joy, therefore, is not mere happiness but something akin to peaceful trust, as we see in 1:6–8.
One virtue leads to another (compare Rom. 5:3–4; 1 Pet. 1:6–7; contrast 1:14–15), ending in a “mature and complete” person. As many Jewish writers, James is optimistic about this.
But someone cannot reach full maturity through effort alone. God must give what one lacks. The Bible talks about two kinds of wisdom: one that comes as a result of old age and one that God gives as a gift (think of Solomon). James talks about the second kind (compare 1:17; 3:17).
“Doubting” here does not refer to lack of belief so much as being divided in one’s loyalties between God and anything else. Asking “in faith,” then, emphasizes faithfulness to “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (2:1). Like Paul, James does not think much of belief alone (see 1:27; 2:8–26, especially verse 19). He lauds works that give life to belief.
James may well have invented the Greek word for “double-minded” (see 4:8). Others, however, including Jesus, talk about the same idea (see Matt. 6:24 and Luke 16:13). It is common in ancient Judaism. A double-minded person will not get what he or she lacks, not because of lack of belief, but because he or she is asking for selfish reasons (4:3) rather than for things that build up the community of believers (4:1–12). Again “faith” is best understood as “faithfulness” or commitment to God and, as a consequence, to God’s people.
Life is short (compare 4:13–17), and afterward judgment comes (5:8–9), therefore, James says, devote yourselves to following God’s way now. To devote yourself to wealth is to reveal your true loyalty, and you will have your reward (5:1–6). God’s way might result in poverty now, but God will reverse fortunes in the world to come. In verse 11 James reworks a passage from Isaiah 40:6–8 that refers to Israel’s climate: both the prophet and James know that in the winter it rains and lush green covers the hills, but the arid heat of summer quickly scorches the vegetation. This is a metaphor for the fragility of human life.
James uses this verse as a transition between sections. In future lessons we will see these ideas repeated: serving one’s own desires leads to death, which for James is both the death of the community of believers (it cannot survive such selfishness) and God’s judgment, whereas faithfulness to God’s way leads to life, which James uses to mean both a healthy congregation now and life with God in the coming world. Wait patiently for God, for God is merciful and just.