About the Author
J. I. Packer (1926–2020) served as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College. He authored numerous books, including the classic best seller Knowing God. Packer served as general editor for the English Standard Version Bible and as theological editor for the ESV Study Bible.
Lane T. Dennis (PhD, Northwestern University) is CEO of Crossway, formerly called Good News Publishers. Before joining Good News Publishers in 1974, he served as a pastor in campus ministry at the University of Michigan (Sault Ste. Marie) and as the managing director of Verlag Grosse Freude in Switzerland. He is the author and/or editor of three books, including the Gold Medallion-award-winning book Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer, and he is the former chairman of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. Dennis has served as the chairman of the ESV (English Standard Version) Bible Translation Oversight Committee and as the executive editor of the ESV Study Bible. Lane and his wife, Ebeth, live in Wheaton, Illinois.
Dane C. Ortlund (PhD, Wheaton College) is chief publishing officer and Bible publisher at Crossway. He serves as an editor for the Knowing the Bible series and the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, and is the author of several books, including Gentle and Lowly and Edwards on the Christian Life. He is an elder at Naperville Presbyterian Church in Naperville, Illinois. Dane lives with his wife, Stacey, and their five children in Wheaton, Illinois.
Read an Excerpt
WEEK 1: OVERVIEW
James's letter is one of the most quoted books of the entire Bible. It's filled with famous phrases and quotations that often make their way into Christian conversation:
Faith produces steadfastness.
God cannot be tempted.
Every good and perfect gift comes from above.
Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.
Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.
Even the demons believe — and shudder!
Faith apart from works is dead.
Resist the devil and he will flee from you.
On the other hand, James is also full of passages that have left Christians scratching their heads. Does James have it in for rich people? What is the point of anointing a sick person with oil? Does James teach that if you just have enough faith, God will always heal? Then there are even larger and more pointed questions. Why doesn't James talk very much about the cross? Does he understand the gospel the same way the rest of the New Testament writers do? And isn't he disagreeing with Paul in chapter 2 about the relationship between faith, works, and salvation?
These are all important questions, and in the course of this study we'll address all of them. It helps, however, to realize that the primary message driving James's letter is that Christians' faith in the gospel should work itself out in a life of obedience. As he says in 1:22, believers in Jesus should not just hear the word and believe it, but they should also do what it says. The gospel of Jesus — which James understands deeply and affirms completely — results in a new life of obedience when a person believes. That's James's message, and as we come to understand that, his book will be a stirring exhortation to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called.
Placing It in the Larger Story
James is an intensely practical book, filled with exhortations to Christians about the way they should live their lives now that they have been given new life in Jesus. It is filled with allusions to and quotations of the teaching of Jesus, and it includes more imperatives (commands) per word than any other New Testament book. For these reasons, James has been called "the Proverbs1 of the New Testament."
James is therefore highly relevant to the Christian life. Unlike many of the other books of the New Testament, James's aim is not to give a theological presentation of the gospel. Rather, he writes his book to those who already believe the gospel, and his goal is to help them live faithfully as followers of Jesus. There are many different and seemingly disconnected themes in James — perseverance under trial, riches and poverty, wisdom, the danger of the tongue, prayer, and faith and works. But what ties them all together is James's desire to take the teaching of Jesus and apply it to the Christian's personal life.
"But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves." (James 1:22)
Date and Historical Background
The book of James was written by a man who identifies himself simply as "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" (James 1:1). But who was this James? The very plainness of the address gives us some clue, because there were not many Jameses in the early church who could get away with such a simple identification. In fact, there was probably only one James who was famous enough to call himself simply "James" and expect that everyone would know who he was — James the brother of Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph.
James died in AD 62, so the letter had to have been written before that. Further, if James wrote his letter after the Jerusalem council of AD 48 — 49, it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't have mentioned those events. Therefore, the book of James was almost certainly written in the mid-40s. That means that — despite the way the New Testament books are arranged — James likely wrote his book several years before Paul wrote his letters and only 15 years or so after Jesus had died and risen again.
James is a general epistle, meaning that it doesn't seem to be written to any particular church, but rather to all Christian churches in general. It is addressed to "the twelve tribes in the Dispersion," which probably means that James has Jewish Christians primarily in mind. The themes he addresses, however, are universal. Persevering under trial, not favoring the rich and powerful, taming the tongue — these are issues which will confront every Christian church and every believer.
I. Greeting (1:1)
II. The Testing of Faith (1:2 — 18)
III. Hearing and Doing the Word (1:19 — 27)
IV. The Sin of Partiality (2:1 — 13)
V. Faith without Works Is Dead (2:14 — 26)
VI. The Sin of Dissension in the Community (3:1 — 4:12)
VII. The Sins of the Wealthy (4:13 — 5:12)
VIII. The Prayer of Faith (5:13 — 18)
IX. Concluding Admonition (5:19 — 20)
As You Get Started ...
How have you thought about the book of James in the past? Does it confuse you, or have you found it helpful in your walk as a Christian? ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________
After reading this introduction, why do you think James wrote his book? What is the main thing he's trying to accomplish in his readers' lives? ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________
Why do you think James doesn't spend time giving a systematic presentation of the gospel? How is his aim different from Paul's aim in, say, Romans or Galatians? ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________
Which parts of James most perplex or confuse you? Are there any parts of the book to which you want to give special attention as you begin this study? ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________
As You Finish This Unit ...
Take a moment now to ask for the Lord's blessing and help as you engage in this study of James. And take a moment also to look back through this unit of study, to reflect on a few key things that you would like to learn throughout this study of James.
Proverb — A brief saying that conveys a lesson about how to live wisely and well, usually drawn from observations about nature and life. The book of Proverbs contains the vast majority of biblical proverbs, but they occur in other books as well.
Dispersion — From the Greek for "scattering," refers to the numerous relocations of large groups of Israelites/Jews throughout the world, including to Assyria and Media (722 BC), Babylon (586), Alexandria in Egypt (c. 300), Phrygia (c. 200), and Rome (c. 63). This dispersion resulted in greater exposure of the Jews to other peoples and also laid the groundwork for the worldwide spread of the gospel during the first century.CHAPTER 2
WEEK 2: THE TESTING OF FAITH
James 1:1 — 11
The Place of the Passage
James opens with an exhortation to his readers to persevere under trial. As those who are dispersed throughout the world, sometimes even by persecution, they are hard-pressed on every side. James encourages his readers to realize that one important mark of the Christian life is to trust God rather than self — even when life seems unbearably hard. If you do that, he says, God will use your trials to make you a more faithful follower of Jesus.
The Big Picture
James tells his readers not to despair because of their trials, but rather to bear up under them, relying on God, recognizing that he is using their trials for their good.
Reflection and Discussion
Read through the complete passage for this study, James 1:1 — 11. Then review the shorter passages below and write your own notes on the following questions. (For further background, see the ESV Study Bible, page 2391, also available online at www.esvbible.org.)
1. Joy in Trials (1:1 — 4)
James identifies himself as "a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ." Knowing that James would have grown up with Jesus — known him as a child, a teenager, a young adult — does it seem remarkable to you that James would now call his brother "Lord" and "Christ"? What do you think happened that convinced James that Jesus, his crucified brother, is here and now the Lord and Messiah? ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________
James addresses his letter "to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion," but he is not writing only to Jewish believers. He is alluding to the fact that just as the children of Israel were dispersed throughout the world in their exile, so also believers in Christ are now aliens and strangers who are waiting for God to gather them home to himself (see also 1 Pet. 1:1; 2:11). What, then, is the connection between verses 1 and 2? How does a reminder to Christians of their status as aliens and strangers in this world set up James's exhortation to them to "count it all joy" when they meet trials? ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________
Verses 2 — 4 are a chain argument in which one thing leads to another. Trace the chain that James describes. What is the end result of our trials? ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________
The word translated "steadfastness" in verse 3 literally means "to remain under," like a person holding up a heavy weight for a long period of time. Think of someone who lifts weights for exercise. What is the "full effect" of that person's "steadfastness?" What are some of the effects of our remaining steadfast under the weight of trials? ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________
2. Wisdom from God in Trials (1:5 — 8)
The exhortation in verse 5 to ask God for wisdom is not disconnected from the theme of persevering under trials. Read Proverbs 2:1 — 15. What is wisdom? Where does it come from? What are the benefits of having wisdom? ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________
As in the Old Testament, wisdom is a God-given and God-centered discernment regarding God's world and how best to live in it. In other words, it is seeing the world and your circumstances as God sees them and then acting in accord with that knowledge. How, then, does God see our trials in this life? How is that different from the way we are tempted to see them? If we could understand our trials as God understands them, how would we act differently? ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________
The word translated "doubt" in verse 6 is literally "dispute." It is used in many different contexts to refer to a dispute with another person. Here, though, James uses the word to refer to a person disputing within one's own self! In other words, to doubt is to be a person of a fundamentally divided mind and a fundamentally inconsistent attitude toward God. It's a reckless and wavering distrust — a refusal finally to trust God. The point is not that a Christian never has doubts; it's that a Christian never allows his mind to become so divided and self-disputing that it welcomes those doubts. A Christian will always strive to take the side of God and truth against doubts when they arise. What are some strategies Christians can use to fight doubt? How can you resist becoming "a double-minded person, unstable in all your ways?" ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________
3. Don't Trust in Yourself, No Matter Your Station in Life (1:9 — 11)
James has much to say in his book about poverty and wealth, and how God expects us to use the resources he gives us. Most of the time in this book, the wealthy are evil people who are oppressing James's readers (e.g., 2:6 and 5:1 — 5). But is that always true? Read 4:13 — 15. James is speaking here to a group of relatively wealthy businesspeople who are traveling to another city in order to make a profit. But it also seems that these businesspeople might be believers! Here's why: When James addresses wicked, rich oppressors, he doesn't exhort them to do anything; he simply condemns them. Here, though, he treats these businesspeople as Christians, teaching them to adjust their thinking and their speech to fit true theology. So does James set up a simplistic "poor equals righteous, rich equals wicked" equation? Does the rest of the Bible? What is the Bible's general opinion of wealth — that it is evil, or that it is dangerous? What other passages of Scripture support your answer? ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________
In verses 9 — 11, James points out our universal tendency to boast in ourselves and to rely on our own accomplishments. Both rich people and poor people have this tendency, so James addresses them both. He exhorts the poor person to boast in his "exaltation" — that is, in what God has done in Christ — rather than to despair because of poverty. And he exhorts the rich person to boast in his or her "humiliation" — that is, in his or her identification with the suffering Christ — and not in riches, because the riches will soon pass away. How does material wealth tend to lead to self-reliance? Does material poverty always lead to reliance on God? If not, what kinds of things can it lead a person wrongly to rely on? ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________
What kinds of things besides wealth do we tend to rely on and boast in for a sense of well-being and security, rather than on God? ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________
For each of the things you mentioned in the previous question, explain why it is foolish to rely on them. Why is it better and wiser to rely on God? ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________
Read through the following three sections on Gospel Glimpses, Whole-Bible Connections, and Theological Soundings. Then take time to reflect on the Personal Implications these sections may have for your walk with the Lord.
A SERVANT OF JESUS CHRIST. Some readers think that the letter of James barely qualifies as a Christian book because it doesn't give a systematic presentation of the gospel. That, however, is to misunderstand what James is doing. He is writing his book to people who already understand the gospel, and he is helping them to see how to live in a way that reflects their faith in Jesus. James understands very well the truth of the gospel and of Jesus' identity. Even in his very first line, he identifies himself as a servant of Jesus the Christ. That is not Jesus' last name! It is a theologically rich title that identifies Jesus as the promised Messiah — the king who would save his people from their sins.
AN UNWAVERING FAITH. The fundamental call of the gospel is for us to "repent4 and believe" (Mark 1:15). In other words, we are to put our faith5 in Jesus — to rely on him and trust him. James calls for exactly that kind of faith in this section of his book. True faith in Christ is not a faith that hedges its bets — "I'll rely 90 percent on Jesus, but 10 percent on my own righteousness." Authentic faith is not divided, double-minded, and unstable. It's a faith that gives itself wholly to Jesus, relying on him and him alone for salvation.
BOASTING IN CHRIST. James says that whether we are rich or poor, our only boast should be in what God has done for us. He makes the point with rich irony. Whereas the world sees the poor as contemptible, they should boast that God has exalted them in Christ. And whereas the world sees the rich as honorable, they should boast that God has humbled them and shown them their need for salvation. Paul says something very similar in Galatians 6:14 when he writes, "Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."
THE TWELVE TRIBES IN THE DISPERSION. Centuries before the birth of Jesus, the twelve tribes of Israel were exiled from their land and scattered among the nations of the world. The northern kingdom was carried into exile by the Assyrian empire, and the southern kingdom was exiled by the Babylonian empire. The Old Testament prophets held out the hope that one day God would return his people to their land and restore them (Jer. 31:7 — 14; Ezek. 37:15 — 28). During their exile, however, they had to endure as aliens and strangers. The New Testament applies those same categories to believers in Christ. Peter, for example, addresses his first letter to the "elect exiles of the Dispersion" (1 Pet. 1:1). Like God's people centuries ago, we Christians are a people waiting for our final redemption when Jesus returns.
THE BENEFIT OF TRIALS. The New Testament is very clear that believers will face trials of many kinds. Just as our Lord was tested in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1 — 11), and just as he endured temptation (Heb. 4:15), so we too are called to endure trial and temptation in this life. However, the Bible also promises us that God will use our trials for our good, strengthening us and leading us to rely more fully on him. Paul makes a similar point in Romans 5:3 — 5, and Peter too compares the effect of trials on our faith to the way fire purifies gold (1 Pet. 1:7).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Knowing the Bible: James"
Copyright © 2013 Crossway.
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Table of Contents
Series Preface J. I. Packer Lane T. Dennis 6
Week 1 Overview 7
Week 2 The Testing of Faith (1:1-11) 11
Week 3 The Process of Temptation (1:12-18) 19
Week 4 Hearing and Doing the Word (1:19-27) 27
Week 5 The Sin of Partiality (2:1-13) 35
Week 6 Faith without Works Is Dead (2:14-26) 43
Week 7 Taming the Tongue (3:1-18) 51
Week 8 The Cause of Quarrels (4:1-12) 59
Week 9 Sins of the Wealthy (4:13-5:6) 67
Week 10 Patience in Suffering (5:7-12) 75
Week 11 The Prayer of Faith (5:13-20) 83
Week 12 Summary and Conclusion 91
What People are Saying About This
“This Knowing the Bible series is a tremendous resource for those wanting to study and teach the Bible with an understanding of how the gospel is woven throughout Scripture. Here are Gospel-minded pastors and scholars doing Gospel business from all the scriptures—this is a biblical and theological feast preparing God’s people to apply the entire Bible to all of life with heart and mind wholly committed to Christ’s priorities.”
—Bryan Chapell, President Emeritus, Covenant Theological Seminary; Senior Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Peoria, Illinois
“Mark Twain may have smiled when he wrote to a friend, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long letter.” But the truth of Twain’s remark remains serious and universal, because well-reasoned, compact writing requires extra time and extra hard work. And this is what we have in the Crossway Bible study series Knowing the Bible—as the skilled authors and notable editors provide the contours of each book of the Bible as well as the grand theological themes that bind them together as one Book. Here, in a 12-week format, are carefully wrought studies that will ignite the mind and the heart.”
—R. Kent Hughes, visiting professor of practical theology, Westminster Theological Seminary
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—Philip Graham Ryken, President, Wheaton College; author, Loving the Way Jesus Loves
“These Knowing the Bible volumes introduce a significant and very welcome variation on the general run of inductive Bible studies. Such series often provide questions with little guidance, leaving students to their own devices. They thus tend to overlook the role of teaching in the church. By contrast, Knowing the Bible avoids the problem by providing substantial instruction with the questions. Knowing the Bible then goes even further by showing how any given passage connects with the gospel, the whole Bible, and Christian theology. I heartily endorse this orientation of individual books to the whole Bible and the gospel, and I applaud the demonstration that sound theology was not something invented later by Christians, but is right there in the pages of Scripture.”
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—Bruce A. Ware, T. Rupert and Lucille Coleman Professor of Christian Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary