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By Vernon D. Doerksen
Moody PressCopyright © 1983 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago
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GROWING THROUGH TESTINGS
James begins his letter with the customary New Testament practice of a three-part salutation: the author, the recipient, and the greeting. Any or all three of those parts could be expanded to suit the particular needs of the author. James amplifies the first two members, but the third part contains the single word "greetings."
James could have identified himself as the Lord's brother (Matt, 13:55; Mark 6:3; Gal. 1:19), or by his ecclesiastic position as the leader of the Jerusalem congregation (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; Gal. 2:12); but he chose rather to portray himself as "James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ." His brother Jude also designated himself a "bond-servant" (Jude 1), as did Paul (Titus 1:1), Peter (2 Pet, 1:1), and John (Rev. 1:1). For the Christian to be a bond-servant or slave portrays not the inhumane, forced, involuntary submission so often the case in human slavery, but rather a willing submission and obedience to the service of Jesus Christ the Lord (Rom. 6:16-23). James recognized that he had been purchased and that he was now a bondservant to the one who had purchased him (1 Cor. 6:20; 1 Pet. 1:18-19). To be a slave of God is not degrading; it is a high privilege.
James saw himself as a bondservant "of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ." In characteristic New Testament style, the Father and the Son are named together in the salutation (Phil. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1). That is not the proverbial serving of two masters (Matt. 6:24), for the two are one (John 10:30), and to serve the one is to serve the other (John 5:17; 9:4; 17:4). James, an avid monotheist (2:19), here subtly affirms his belief in the Trinity and reminds his Jewish readers that Jesus the Messiah must be served equally with the Lord God.
The full title ("Lord Jesus Christ") conveys many things about Jesus, To the Jewish reader the ascription "Lord" would signify deity, for in the Old Testament Yahweh is translated by the term "Lord" (Ex. 6:2-3; Gr. kurios). Several Old Testament quotations that contain the name Jehovah (or Yahweh) are applied directly to Christ in the New Testament (cf. Rom. 10:9, 13 with Joel 2:32; and 1 Pet. 3:14-45 with Isa. 8:12-13). The title Lord also denoted sovereignty. Christ is to be both worshiped and served. The name Jesus is equivalent to the Old Testament name Joshua, meaning "savior." To Joseph the angel said, "You shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21). That is the name given Him at the incarnation, and it speaks of His humanity. Christ is the Greek term for the Hebrew word Messiah (John 1:41; 4:25). As such, Jesus is the "Anointed One," the one who fulfills the messianic prophecies (Ps. 2:2; Dan. 9:25). He is the long-expected deliverer, the one who is to establish the Davidic kingdom. It is interesting that only here and in 2:1 does James employ the compound title. Elsewhere he simply uses "Lord."
Two things are said about the recipients of this letter: they are of the twelve tribes, and they are in the Dispersion, The twelve tribes represent the whole physical seed of Jacob, both the northern and the southern kingdoms. The northern tribes of Israel were dispersed after the Assyrian conquest in 722 B.C. (2 Kings 18:9-12), and the southern kingdom was carried into Babylonian captivity in stages between 605 and 586 B.C. (2 Kings 24-25). Under Cyrus, king of Persia, many Jews returned and joined with the remnant that remained in the land (2 Chron. 36:22-23). In New Testament times there were two groups of Israelites: Jews living in Palestine and Jews living throughout the Roman Empire, sometimes called Hellenists. The epithet "the Dispersion" refers to those Jews who were scattered like grain throughout the world. In addition to the scattering because of conquests, Jews had migrated to the four corners of the earth for commercial and other reasons. Luke indicates that at Pentecost there were Jewish people of the Dispersion from "every nation under heaven" who had come to Jerusalem for the feast (Acts 2:5).
It is not certain whether James was writing to the entire Dispersion or to a limited segment of it. Because he has certain subjects in mind and is addressing definite issues, it seems that he is writing to a specific group, perhaps certain Christian Jews living outside of Palestine but still within the province of Syria.
This brief salutation closes with the simple "greetings" (lit., "to rejoice, to be glad"). It was used in the letter of the Jerusalem Council, a document probably written primarily by James (Acts 15:23), and in the letter of Claudius Lysias to Felix (Acts 23:26). The greeting "to rejoice" prepares the readers for the discussion of joy and trials that immediately follows.
Following his brief salutation, James plunges immediately into the subject of trials, counseling his readers to count it all joy when encountering them. James follows with four reasons they should rejoice: trials properly faced develop maturity (1:2-4); trials drive us to God (1:5-8); trials force us to make a proper evaluation of life (1:9-11); and the endurance of trials brings the crown of life (1:12).
TRIALS PROPERLY FACED DEVELOP MATURITY (1:2-4)
The readers were facing difficulties of such magnitude that their faith was being tested. James counseled them to "consider it all joy" when confronting trials. In like manner Peter exhorted his readers, who were being "distressed by various trials," to "greatly rejoice" (1 Pet. 1:6). Neither James nor Peter defined the nature of those trials, but it can be assumed that they were both external pressures, such as afflictions and persecutions, and the annoyances and griefs of everyday life. Contrary to the natural fleshly response to difficulties, these Christians were challenged to consider such experiences as a basis for all joy. That joy is not to be confused with a happiness or pleasure that is dependent on outward circumstances. Rather, Christian joy is, as Adamson says, "a man's pleasure in his (and his brothers') progress toward Christian salvation." "Consider" means careful, deliberate judgment. The readers are encouraged to evaluate carefully their trials, knowing that from negative experiences Christian growth can take place. For that reason they can rejoice in the face of hardships.
"All joy," in the emphatic position, forms an interesting bridge to the salutation. Having just written "greetings," or "to rejoice" (chairein), James challenged his readers to assess their various trials as a basis for joy (charan). "All" joy speaks of pure joy, unmixed joy, joy to the highest. Perhaps James used "all joy" as a balance or counterpart to "various trials." Christian joy can be as intense and pure as trials can be varied.
The term translated "trials" (peirasmoi) is a word of considerable breadth. It is used both of adversities that plague man within and without and of inner enticements to sin. Often those two meanings, "trials" and "temptations," are closely related. What God permits as a test to develop character in His child, Satan or the flesh may use as a temptation. No doubt when God tested Abraham by commanding him to offer his son (Gen. 22:1), Satan tempted him not to obey God's command. It is interesting that God used the evil designs of Satan against righteous Job to build Job's character. "Various trials" are permitted by God to develop character, though the flesh may use those same problems as a temptation or enticement to sin (1:13). When trials come the believer will react in one of two ways: he will either grow in Christian character or he will become embittered, rebellious, and hardhearted. James assumes the best of his readers (cf. Heb. 6:9) and exhorts them to rejoice because character development will come.
Fifteen times in this short epistle James addresses his readers as "my brethren" or "brethren." He sees them as fellow members in the spiritual family of faith, not merely fellow Israelites. From the start James seeks to identify with them as a brother in their sufferings. By being genuinely concerned about them in their trials and gaining credibility as a caring family member, he will later be able to rebuke them severely in certain problem areas, such as partiality (2:1-13), lifeless faith (2:14-26), uncontrolled speech (3:1-12), and dissensions in the body (4:1-6).
Those varied trials are not to be understood as troubles of one's own making, but rather those of an unavoidable nature. They are trials into which believers fall. Also, it is not an issue of "if they come," but rather "when they come." Paul reminds us that those who desire to be godly will suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3:12).
It is easier to understand having joy follow sorrow than having joy during the difficulty. In Scripture we read both of rejoicing after calamity and during calamity. Christ told His disciples that as joy follows the sorrows of childbirth, so also the disciples' sorrow would be turned to joy when they saw Him again (John 16:20-22). Of Jesus it is written, "For the joy set before Him [He] endured the cross" (Heb. 12:2). And the disciples rejoiced "that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name" (Acts 5:41). Here also the reader is commanded to consider trials as a basis for joy.
A reason for the joy is that the trials that test the believer's faith will produce endurance (v. 3), which in turn will develop Christian maturity (v. 4). "Knowing" suggests that the readers were not ignorant of that truth, but in times of difficulty they needed to be reminded again that hardships produce character. The "testing" of faith can be understood in one of two ways. It may mean the approved part of faith, hence the genuine part, that part of faith that has passed the test. The idea would be that that which is genuine in faith will produce patience. On the other hand, it may speak of the means of testing: trials are a means or an instrument whereby faith is tested; they cleanse and purify faith. The context seems to argue for the second position. Faith is tested by trials.
Throughout the epistle, James has much to say about a living, vibrant faith. For one thing, genuine faith does not evaporate in the face of difficulties. Meeting obstacles and overcoming them proves the genuineness of faith and molds character. That developing character or virtue is called "endurance." The testing of faith "produces endurance." The present tense indicates a continuous action. "Endurance," or "patience" as it is sometimes translated, is more than passive endurance and quiet submission. It is rather that active steadfastness and staying power that confronts difficulties and continues on in faith with purpose and resolve. James uses the same term to describe the character of Job (5:11). His "endurance" allowed him to say, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21), and, "Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?" (Job 2:10). The verb form of the word is also used in 1:12: "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial" (italics added).
But endurance or steadfastness is not the end result; it is rather an important step toward Christian maturity (v. 4). The readers are challenged to allow steadfastness to have its perfect result. That "perfect result" can be understood in one of two ways. It may mean the development of perfect endurance or the development of perfect character. The second meaning is more appropriate; perfect endurance should result in perfect character. "Result" is the noun form of the verb "produce" (v. 3). As testing produces endurance, so endurance should have its product. The adjective "perfect" is used five times by James (twice here; 1:17, 25; 3:2). It speaks of completeness, maturity, full-grown, brought to its end, finished. Impatience, complaining, or bitterness would not be a "perfect" result. The command is in the present tense, indicating continuous and progressive action. The purposes for testing are being accomplished as we remain steadfast.
The outcome of a proper attitude toward trials is threefold, two positives and one negative: "That you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." Paul writes that "tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope" (Rom. 5:3-4). "Perfect" and "complete" are in some ways synonymous, but are not without their individual shades of meaning. To be "perfect" means to be mature, fully developed. In this setting it could not mean absolute perfection; rather, it is that goal of full development to which every Christian should aspire. It is adulthood as opposed to childhood. The writer to the Hebrews urges his readers to "press on to maturity [perfection]" (Heb. 6:1).
The second term, "complete," means entire, every part intact. Every part of the Christian character is being developed. In the growth and maturation of the physical body, normal growth means that every individual part of the body is growing to its mature size. So in the development of the spiritual person, every aspect of the spiritual life, in all its parts, must mature. As in the bearing of the fruit of the Spirit, one will not have one virtue without the other eight (Gal. 5:2223).
Not only will the one who endures testing be perfect and complete, he will also be "lacking in nothing." To lack is the exact opposite of being complete. All areas of the personality need to grow, and these testings will provide a means whereby growth will take place. No area in Christian development will be in want.
The Christian's approach to difficulties is the opposite of the world's. The Christian considers them joy: "For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives" (Heb. 12:6), and, "Every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit" (John 15:2). The one who wants to be "perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" must endure, being steadfast, in the face of testing.
TRIALS DRIVE US TO GOD (1:5-8)
As the believer encounters trials, he will not always know how to react to them and will need wisdom from above. Wisdom is important in the maturing process of the individual. It could be an area where there is incompleteness. That lack can be met by believing, unwavering prayer to a God who freely gives.
"Lacks" provides the bridge from the previous verse's "lacking in nothing." The repetition of a word or its cognate to introduce a new thought or a progression of thoughts is characteristic of James's style. The technique is used several times in the immediate context: "greetings" (v. 1, chairein) and "joy" (v. 2, charan); "endurance" (v. 3) and "endurance" (v. 4); "lacking" (v. 4) and "lacks" (v. 5); "ask" (v. 5) and "ask" (v. 6); and "doubting" (v. 6) and "doubts" (v. 6). That same linguistic style, called paronomasia, occurs also in 1:12-15; 21-25; 3:2-8; and 4:1-3.
The lack James addresses here is wisdom. He assumes it as a real need. Verse 5 could be translated, "If any of you lacks wisdom, and he does, let him ask of God." "Wisdom" is a key word with James. It occurs again in 3:13, 15, and 17. To James "wisdom is 'the principal thing,' to which he gives the same prominence as St. Paul to faith, St. John to love, St. Peter to hope." For the Christian, wisdom is more than the ability to follow obtruse arguments, to know a series of facts, or to have mental sagacity. It is rather keen spiritual discernment, which enables the believer to make correct moral judgments and face life with its trials in a way consistent with the revealed will of God. Solomon wrote, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 9:10). For the Christian, wisdom starts with an acknowledgment of God and a readiness to perform His will. Such wisdom will be in conflict with the wisdom of this world, for the world's wisdom is "earthly, natural, demonic" (3:15).
The wisdom from above is God's gift to man, not an accomplishment of human ingenuity or skill. The child of God who senses a lack of and need for wisdom is commanded to express his need to God. The believer has the Scriptures, but he needs the constant illumination of the Scripture that only God can give. "Ask" is in the present tense, meaning "keep on asking." The same form is used in Matthew 7:7, "Ask [keep on asking], and it shall be given to you." The parable of the importunate widow was given to teach believers "that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart" (Luke 18:1).
The one who seeks wisdom asks of "God, who gives." "Gives" is a participle with the definite article, and it may relate to "God" in one of two ways. It may be used in apposition, "God, the one who gives," or it may be "the giving God." The second meaning implies that giving is part of the nature of God. The present tense of the participle suggests that our God is continually giving. As we are to be continually asking, He is continually giving. The Christian can be assured, though, that whatever the need—wisdom or otherwise—our God is a perpetually giving God. "It is this view of the nature of God which encourages the believer to come boldly to God with his requests."
Excerpted from James by Vernon D. Doerksen. Copyright © 1983 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of Moody Press.
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