Overview of James for New Testament Reading
Unbelievable! Miraculous! Revolutionary!...The best ever! We hear extravagant claims all the time don’t we? Every time we turn on the television, or surf the web these messages leap out at us, assuring us of an improved, new, fantastic, life-changing product that can transform our existence for the better. For mere pennies we can have “cleaner clothes,” “whiter teeth,” “slimmer bodies,” “more glamorous looks,” and “tastier food.” The list goes on and on with things guaranteeing happiness, friends, and the good life. And just before an election, no one can match the politicians’ promises, you can count on that. But, talk is cheap as we all know, and the discerning side of us soon realizes that these ads and boasts were hollow and quite far from the actual truth.
“I’m a believer”…“Jesus is the answer!”…”Believe totally in God!”…”Follow me to church!” Christians often make great claims as well but are just as guilty of contradicting them with their actions. Professing to trust God and to be His people, they cling tightly to the world and its values. Possessing all the right answers, they oppose the gospel with their lives. In other words, they talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.
James in his short and poetic book, full of energy and vigor, confronts this conflict of natures head-on with the first-century Jewish Christians residing in Gentile communities outside of Palestine in the Dispersion (James 1:1), and to all Christians everywhere for all time. James makes it his driving theme that it is not enough to just talk the Christian faith, but one must live it out just as Christ Jesus did. “What use is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him (2:14)?” The proof of the reality of our faith is a changed life. Anything less is a compromise. Therefore, genuine faith will inevitably produce good works, which James explains in practical terms to his audience for the purpose of Christian living.
James was the half-brother of Jesus Christ and a leader in the early church in Jerusalem. He wanted to expose hypocritical practices he observed and to teach correct Christian behavior. He writes in style much like the Proverbs with random sections of wisdom literature that coordinates in a magnificent tapestry of Divine guidance for the believer. This book was written very early in the New Testament cannon, probably around 49 AD prior to the Jerusalem council of 50 AD (Acts 15).
Some theologians have claimed that James contradicts much of what Paul preaches concerning being saved by faith alone. In reality Paul preaches the exact same gospel, faith saves and always leads to works (Eph. 2:8-10). Both Paul and James agree that you can’t have one without the other. There is a blessed union between believing and working out our salvation (Phil. 2:12). Our actions must match our faith for it to be real. It is not really what you say or even think but what you do that reveals what you actually believe. This is the point that James makes.
Living Faith- James wants believers not only to hear the truth but also to put it into action. He contrasts empty faith (claims without conduct) with faith that works. Commitment to love and to serve others is evidence of true faith. Seek ways of putting your faith to work. Follow through!
Trials- In the Christian life there are trials, tribulations, and temptations. Successfully overcoming these adversities produces maturity and strong character. Don’t resent the troubles when they come upon you. Pray for wisdom; God will supply all you need to face persecution or trouble. He will give you the patience you need and keep you in His overwhelming care.
Compassion- We are to love and serve those around us. As the Father and Jesus Christ is our head, we are the bride of Christ as the church. As this motherly figure, we are to be the loving hands and feet of our Sovereign here on this earth ministering to those children of God who have great needs. We can make the world a better place through the power of the Holy Spirit in us. Keeping in love shows that our faith is real and vital. When we show love to others, we are overcoming our own selfishness.
Wise Speech- Wisdom shows itself in wise speech. God holds us responsible for the results of our destructive words. The wisdom of God that helps us control the tongue can help us control all our actions. Accepting God’s wisdom will affect what you say. Your words should convey true humility and lead to peace and edification. Think before you speak and allow God to give you self-control, which a fruit of His Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).
Wealth- James taught Christians not to compromise with worldly attitudes about wealth. Because the glory of wealth fades, Christians should store up God’s treasures through sincere giving and service. Christians must not show partiality to the wealthy or be prejudiced against the poor. We are all accountable for what the Lord has entrusted to us. We should never hoard wealth, but be generous towards those in need. In addition, we should not be impressed or flattered by the prideful wealthy as to imitate their arrogance by looking down on the poor.
Impartiality- God is just and plays no favorites. He gives to all and is generous without partiality. We are instructed to be like Him in making no distinctions between people based on what they might be able to do for us or the natural materials they possess.
Selfishness- Where jealousy and selfish ambition is found in our heart there is disorder and every evil thing because it is earthly (worldly), natural, and demonic. This leads to fights, quarrels, and unanswered prayer. We cannot be arrogant and so lie against the truth, Christ is the only way out of a self-centered nature as He makes us new creatures in Him. God is jealous for us and wants us to submit ourselves before Him exclusively so that His grace can be extended and His will be done.
Patience- Just like the prophets and the farmer, we are to wait on the Lord and the power of His might. He will bring about His purposes in due season as we endure during time of suffering just like Job.
Prayer- Prayer is active and takes total involvement without doubting. It is the prayer of faith that gets results in the spiritual realm, which affects the natural.
James begins his letter by outlining some general characteristics of the Christian life (1:1-27). Next, he exhorts Christians to act justly in society (2:1-13). He follows this practical advice with a theological discourse on the relationship between faith and action (2:14-26). The James shows the importance of controlling one’s speech (3:1-12). In 3:13-18, he distinguishes two kinds of wisdom—earthly and heavenly. Then he encourages his readers to turn from evil desires and obey God (4:1-12). James reproves those who trust in their own plans and possessions (4:13-5:6). Finally, he exhorts his readers to be patient with each other (5:7-11), to be straightforward in their promises (5:12), to pray for each other (5:13-18), and to help each other remain faithful to God (5:19-20).
This work should be considered a how-to book on Christian living. As you read be ready to be confronted, challenged, and called to commitment as you become “a doer of the Word (1:22-25).”
James 1:22-25 22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it-- he will be blessed in what he does.
James 2:17-18 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
*Notes from this overview were aided by:
New American Standard Bible: Life Application Study Bible, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Mich.: 1995, pgs. 2184-2185.
-James writes to those of the Dispersion, spread abroad by persecution (James 1:1). This I take to be the new Israel, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, who has just experienced a dispersing from Jerusalem and the predominantly Jewish areas because of their belief in the resurrected Savior. Much like when the Assyrians and Babylonians came in and spread out the Hebrew people, now the Christians were being spread out and needed a common identity in Christ. James addresses this as his letter begins.
-This Dispersion has created many tests and trials for the believers, and James wastes no time in encouraging them. He tells them to “count it all joy” when you meet various trials in this life because the testing of faith produces steadfastness and perfects the individual making him/her complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4). When we need wisdom, we can ask of God who gives generously to all with reproach, but it must be done in faith. The one who doubts is like a ship on the driven sea and is unstable in all his/her ways (James 1:5-8). *Application* Trust in the Lord when things are rough. Ask and seek His wisdom and direction in all matters. He will guide and grow you if you have faith and do not doubt. This is His promise to you.
-The lowly are encouraged, again in the context of persecution and abandonment, to exalt in their position compared to the fleetly glory of the rich who is wicked in his/her vain pursuits (James 1:9-11). What James is talking about is a trial, and blessed is the man who stays unshakeable in this circumstance for they will receive the crown of life promised to those who love Christ Jesus (James 1:12). God doesn’t do the tempting. It is Satan who lures and entices, and it is people in their natural-fallen desires, who give birth to sin in their hearts, which when it is fully grown produces death (James 1:13-15). *Application* The Lord is on our side and wants to rescue us even in our greatest distress. It is easy to blame God for all our trials and errors, but He is the only One to deliver and save. Don’t get carried away by temptation and fall. Trust in the Lord to heal you and give you new life in Him.
-Every good and perfect gift comes from above, coming down from the Father of lights (James 1:17). We are not to be deceived by the enemy (James 1:16). There is no variation or shifting shadow with God. He is the Word of truth that we should be the first fruits of His creatures by faith (Romans 8:23, Ephesians 2:7-10, James 1:17-18). Therefore, we are to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger (James 1:19). The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. We are to receive the implanted Word, which is able to save souls, and put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness (James 1:20-21).
-James now gets to the crux of his message. We are to be doers of the Word, and not just hearers who deceive themselves (James 1:22). If anyone is just a hearer, he/she is like a person who looks in a mirror and then forgets what they saw. The one who looks at the perfect law of liberty, which is in Christ Jesus, and perseveres, as a doer who acts, is the one who will be blessed in his/her doing (James 1:23-25). The tongue is an important theme which now surfaces and the person who cannot bridle it deceives his heart making his religion worthless. The doing includes pure and undefiled religion before God (not above Him) by visiting the widows and orphans in their affliction and keeping oneself unstained by the word (James 1:26-27). *Application* It is not what you say or think that matters, but what you do that actually reveals what you believe. Don’t fool yourself. This is a tactic of the enemy to deceive. Evaluate what you actually do and you will then more accurately know what you believe.
Verses to memorize: James 1:2-5, 22-25