Structure of James
We begin our study of the letter from James by looking at the structure of the letter. First, we expect the author to state his name and rank. “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). Which James is the author of this letter? We read about James the apostle being killed by Herod in Acts 12, so we cannot believe he is the author. The other notable James in the scriptures is James, the brother of Jesus, who had notable influence in the early church (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; Galatians 2:9). What is amazing is that James does not refer to himself in his rank as “the brother of Jesus.” James just calls himself a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. But James was an important person in the early church and as a brother of Jesus. The recipients are described as “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” This letter is written to the Jewish Christians who were dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. This seems to be a reference to the Christians who had to flee Jerusalem in the persecution ignited by the Jews and led by Saul. “On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:2). “Those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one except Jews” (Acts 11:19). James’ salutation is a simple, “Greetings.” A section of thanksgiving is missing, but I do not think this is unusual simply because James is writing to such a broad audience. Therefore, verses 2-3 should give us an indication about the purpose of James’ letter.
“My brothers, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (1:2-3). At first reading, we would probably think that James is going to spend this letter talking about trials. But as we read the letter we see that James is going to talk about faith. James is going to talk about the character of faith and the purpose of faith in our lives. The first half of chapter 1 is about the testing of faith.
The Testing of Faith (1:2-18)
The purpose of tests (2-12). James begins his letter by teaching the Jewish Christians that our faith must be tested so we can become mature, complete, and lacking nothing. There is no doubt that these Christians were experiencing a testing of their faith as they had to leave their homes in Jerusalem due to a severe persecution brought about through the Sanhedrin. During trials, James say we need to “ask in faith” for wisdom. If we do not ask in full belief that God will answer, then we ought not to expect anything from the Lord (vs. 7).
The source of temptations (13-18). For some reason, human nature seems to want to blame God for our problems. In the middle of these trials and temptations, do not blame God. Rather, God is the giver of every good and perfect gift. Since our faith must be tested to make us mature, complete, and lacking nothing, James is going to describe for us what mature, perfected faith looks like.
The Character of Faith (1:19-5:6)
Faith obeys God’s law (1:19-27). James will spend a lot of time in this letter discussing how faith is an obedient faith. James begins pointing out that obedience is a critical component of faith. Obedience requires us to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. We have to put away all filthiness and wickedness. Instead we have to receive with meekness the word of God. Therefore, we must be quick to listen to the word of God and be doers of the word. The purpose of listening to the word of God is so that you and I can do something about it. We do not look in the mirror and then walk away without making changes to our appearance. Yet how often to see look into the mirror of the word of God, but then walk away without making any personal changes.
Faith does not show favoritism (2:1-13). “My brothers, hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ without showing favoritism” (2:1). Mature faith does not make judgments based upon outward appearances. James warns about paying attention to people who would come into the assembly with fine clothes, but treating differently people who come in dressed poorly. We can never set aside God’s law to love our neighbor as ourselves. We do not get to apply this command when we feel like it. If we ignore one part of God’s law, then we are guilty of all of the law.
Faith requires works (2:14-26). As we have already noted, this point continues to be the repeated theme of the letter. The person does not look into the law of liberty and do nothing. He must act upon the knowledge of the word of God. Faith leads to obedience, putting away all wickedness. Now James says that faith without works is dead and useless. Faith without action is not faith at all.
Faith controls the tongue (3:1-12). In chapter three, we still see that James is talking about faith that leads to a mature person. A mature person is able to control his whole body (3:2). James warns that we must control our tongues. The tongue can be used for healing or for hurting. “So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity” (James 3:5-6). As verses 10-11 point out, it is not possible to have a clean heart but a wicked tongue. The tongue reflects what is in our hearts.
Faith produces wisdom (3:13-18). James continues to press the teaching of active faith. “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom” (3:13). Wicked must be put aside. This time, James declares our need to remove bitter jealousy and selfish ambition from our hearts. Our faith is shown through good conduct. I believe James said that we show our faith in God through wise living.
Faith produces humility (4:1-12). “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (4:6). Notice that right after James quotes Solomon’s proverb, he makes this application: “Therefore, submit to God.” James continues to stress the point that faith will obey what God has commanded. True faith will humble ourselves before God and let God gives us the honor.
Faith depends upon God alone (4:13-5:6). In verses 13-17 of chapter 4 we see that true faith will depend upon God on a daily basis. All plans are made through God. Wealth is probably one of the best ways to evaluate our faith in God. I think verse 5 of chapter 5 could be speaking of all of us: “You have lived luxuriously on the land and have indulged yourselves. You have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.” The way we handle our wealth reveals how strong our faith is in God. Many times we only trust in God when we are doing well financially. As soon as something changes, through loss of money or loss of work, we can panic and make decisions that do not reflect a faith that depends upon God alone. We have to trust God through the difficult financial times, not throw away our faith because we think our family will not be provided for.
Faith patiently awaits the coming of the Lord (5:7-12). I think a point of clarification should be made immediately. It does not appear that James is talking about the final coming of the Lord. Two verses indicate this: “Strengthen your hearts, because the Lord’s coming is near” (5:8). Also, “Look, the judge stands at the door!” (5:9). Both of these verses speaking to the immediacy of the coming of the Lord. If James was speaking about the second coming, then James was wrong about when the Lord would come. This is not an acceptable conclusion. The coming of the Lord must refer to something else. Verses 9-11 are talking about examples of suffering and patience. These Jewish Christians had been suffering from the persecution by the Jews of Jerusalem. Therefore, the coming of the Lord must refer to the judgment that was going to take place against the Jews of Jerusalem for killing the saints. Christians have a faith that patiently awaits judgment upon those who cause us pain and suffering.
Faith knows the power of prayer (5:13-18). James discusses the power of prayer to save the sick. Elijah is used as an example of the effective power of prayer. Proof of the power of prayer is found in what Elijah was able to ask God to do. I think our problem returns to the fact that we do not believe God will do anything we ask. This problem ties back into the beginning of the letter where James said that those who do not ask in faith should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. We need to realize the power of prayer have the faith in God to answer.
Faith brings back the erring (5:19-20). True faith cares about the souls of others that they will help those who are spiritually sick. We should be zealous to help those who are weak in the faith. We help them with cards, letters, and visitation. We help the weak by being here for worship. Many of us do not have time to meet together on a daily basis. We need to meet together at every opportunity so we can strengthen the weak. Those who have fallen away needs us to come and try to help them come back.
The letter of James concludes without any closing or greeting, which is unusual.
Trials show the value of our faith. Difficult times reveal the strength of our faith in God. Trials produce the character that God wants us to have. While painful, we need to view a trial as our opportunity to purify our faith and reveal our trust in God.
Real faith submits and obeys God. Verbal faith is useless and dead. God is looking for us to have a trust in God that will act upon our belief in God. If we are unwilling to be obedient to God’s laws, then do not have faith and are lost.
Real faith will change our character. We will not show partiality toward others based upon external judgments. We will control our tongues and exercise humility. We will believe in the power of prayer and rely upon the Lord to act on our behalf.