There’s evidence that when the books of the New Testament were first put together, they were in a different order than we’re familiar with today. Most notably, James, Peter, John, and Jude’s letters that we call the “general epistles” or “catholic epistles” used to be located between Acts and Romans (click here to learn more). At one time, if you read the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation you’d read the general epistles before getting to Paul’s letters. This makes a great deal of sense because the general epistles are phrased in simpler language and provide a foundation for linking Jesus’s teachings, the Old Testament, and our lives as New Covenant believers. They’re sort of like a pre-requisite course to help us with understanding Paul, much like you should take an intro to biology class before you try to tackle advanced genetics.
James’s epistle/letter is the first of these general epistles. While there’s controversy about which James wrote this letter, he has typically been accepted as an apostle who could write authoritatively on the Christian faith. He addresses his letter “to the twelve tribes dispersed abroad” (James 1:1, NET), and the focus of this letter remains on those people. Adam Clarke’s commentary says, “The epistle itself is entirely different in its complexion from all those in the sacred canon; the style and manner are more that of a Jewish prophet than a Christian apostle. … It may be considered a sort of connecting link between Judaism and Christianity, as the ministry of John Baptist was between the old covenant and the new” (see Clarke’s introduction to James). This emphasis on the Jewish people shouldn’t be shocking–Jesus and all His first followers (including the many people named James mentioned in scripture) were Jewish or from another Israelitish background (e.g. the Samaritans).
The fact that James spends time bridging the gap between Old and New Testaments and that he speaks generally about a variety of Christian-living topics makes this letter great background reading for Paul. In books like Romans and Galatians, Paul deep-dives into the relationships between Jews, Gentiles, Law, and Covenants. It’s hard to understand what he’s talking about in those letters if we aren’t already familiar with the law and covenants that Paul references or if we’re not clear on how Jesus’s coming updated/changed that law and covenants for modern believers (both Jew and Gentile). James and the other general epistles talk about the sort of foundational things of our faith that we need to understand before moving forward into the deeper things God teaches, and which we need to keep reinforcing so that we can stay aligned with truth.
Active, Living Faith
James begins his letter by jumping right into this: “My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials” (1:2, NET). No preamble or introductions–we’re right into talking about joy and trials. It’s a message we need to hear today as well, and it leads-in to one of the strongest themes of James’s letter: faith. We’re to consider the trials a joy “because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (1:3, NET) and that this testing proves the genuineness of your faith (1:12). After that, endurance’s effect is that we become “perfect and complete, not deficient in anything” (1:4). That’s another key theme to James’s letter: faith is meant to have a tangible effect.
But be sure you live out the message and do not merely listen to it and so deceive yourselves. For if someone merely listens to the message and does not live it out, he is like someone who gazes at his own face in a mirror. For he gazes at himself and then goes out and immediately forgets what sort of person he was. But the one who peers into the perfect law of liberty and fixes his attention there, and does not become a forgetful listener but one who lives it out—he will be blessed in what he doesJames 1:22-25, NET
We’re supposed to “do” the law–to live it out–rather than violate or ignore it. James emphasizes for his readers that the law they’d been familiar with for so long isn’t gone, and the same God who gave that Law is still sovereign. James does not, however, promote legalistic application of the law. Rather, he provides groundwork for Paul’s teachings about how the law operates on a spiritual level today. James also assures his readers that “mercy triumphs over judgement” (2:8-13). We don’t need to freak-out about trying to make others do what’s right or worry that God will cut us off the moment we slip up. Rather, we ought to focus on living out “the royal law as expressed in this scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (2:8, NET). That will make our faith genuine.
So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works. You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that—and tremble with fear. … For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.James 2:17-19, 26, NET
This is part of a longer section on faith and works (click here to read the whole thing). James seems to be confronting the idea that faith is the only thing we need now that Jesus has come. This is an idea we can find in some churches today as well, where people teach grace as if it means we have license to sin because God is willing to forgive. James counters that sort of idea by saying belief which does not result in action is as useless as the sort of “faith” that demons have. It seems a bit harsh to compare a person’s profession of faith to a demon’s belief in God, but I assume that indicates how serious James believed this problem is. Faith without works is dead. If we want living faith, then it needs to produce something good.
In the early New Testament church, as in many places today, there were those who believed that Jesus did away with all God’s laws and made it so Christians could have a relationship with Him but still go on and live however they wanted. That idea horrified the apostles. It’s one of the things James combats by saying that “faith without works is useless” (2:20, NET). Only foolish people would think that God’s grace should be used as an excuse not to live a godly life.
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct he should show his works done in the gentleness that wisdom brings. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfishness in your hearts, do not boast and tell lies against the truth. Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where there is jealousy and selfishness, there is disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and not hypocritical. And the fruit that consists of righteousness is planted in peace among those who make peace.James 3:13-18, NET
Good and evil are very real things, and God cares deeply about which one we practice. Becoming friends with the world and giving into the baser “passions that battle inside you” makes you a hostile enemy of God (4:1, 4). We must “resist the devil,” make our hearts pure, and humble ourselves” before the Lord” (4:7-10). We cannot maintain a good relationship with God while also giving into whatever we desire. Trying to live according to our lusts and according to God’s way at the same time is one of the things that makes someone “a double-minded individual, unstable in all his ways” (1:8, NET, see also 4:8). We need to be committed to our faith, and participate in God’s work as He makes us more and more like Him. Once God teaches us what “good” is, then we ought to do what is good. And we also need to recognize that if we’re not doing what is good we are guilty of sin. If we don’t recognize that, then we won’t know to repent, ask for forgiveness, and keep coming back to God when we “miss the mark” (a Hebrew idiom for sin). God is eager to give grace, mercy, and forgiveness but we also play a role in that since we need to know to ask for it as part of our participation in His covenant.
So whoever knows what is good to do and does not do it is guilty of sin.James 4:17, NET
Once of the main things that holds people back from truly living in faith is pride. Again and again James warns against this tendency. He tells us to never let our own successes make us proud (1:9-11), not to base our judgements of a person’s value on anything external, nor on what we might get from them (2:1-9), not to be ruled by our own lusts (4:1-7), and never to exploit others or prioritize ourselves over them (5:1-6). We’re not even supposed to “speak against one another,” for that makes us “not a doer of the law but its judge” (4:11-12, NET). The Lawgiver is the only qualified judge; our job is to do what is right, not to arbitrate God’s law (though there are a few exceptions where believers are expected to pass certain types of judgements within the church, such as Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians).
It’s challenging enough trying to control the use of our own tongues (3:1-12) and to live within the Lord’s will (4:13-17). Policing others is outside our responsibilities. Rather, our relationships should be based on fulfilling “the royal law as expressed in this scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (2:8, NET). In that spirit, if we see someone wandering from the truth we can help them back to God in a humble, loving way without becoming a judge in the way James condemns (5:19-20). Basically, our primary responsibility is to live a godly life that produces fruitful faith.
So be patient, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s return. Think of how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the ground and is patient for it until it receives the early and late rains. You also be patient and strengthen your hearts, for the Lord’s return is near. Do not grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be judged. See, the judge stands before the gates! As an example of suffering and patience, brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name. Think of how we regard as blessed those who have endured. You have heard of Job’s endurance and you have seen the Lord’s purpose, that the Lord is full of compassion and mercy.James 5:7-11, NET
These lines near the close of James’s letter bring us full-circle. We’re back to the idea of patient endurance while going through trails. And I don’t think it just means the sort of major trials alluded to by referencing a story like Job; it also includes the “smaller,” ongoing struggle of living a godly life every day in a world that’s hostile to godly things. We need the sort of patience and strength that James talks about here so that we can endure to the end. This is also something Peter is going to talk about in the next general epistle, which (if everything goes well with writing that) we’ll be talking about in next week’s post.