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James 1:1-18 Godly Thinking Leads to a Godly Lifestyle

Introduction to James

I wonder what comes into your mind when James informs us, count it all joy when you fall into various trials? Do you subconsciously glance over that? Does it seem strange or even irreconcilable to your thinking? Does it even seem unnecessary? Is it a forced, ungenuine reaction? James/Jacob knew what it meant to suffer trials. James was martyred for his faith in the Lord and just like his letter, he practised what he preached.

There are several bible characters by the name of James (Yacov).

1. James, brother of John, son of Zebedee. Often accompanied by John, Peter and Yeshua (Jesus).

2. The other disciple James, son of Alphaeus, though little is known concerning him.

3. James, son of Judas (the talmidim/disciple-not Judas Iscariot). Judas was called ‘Judas son of James’ to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot.

4. James was the oldest half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3) and is the author of this Messianic epistle.

John 7:5 reminds us that even Jesus’ brothers did not believe Him at that point. It appears that he came to faith following the resurrection when Yeshua appeared to him (1 Corinthians 15:7) and he was influential at the Jerusalem Council. He was also present at the Lord’s ascension (Acts 1:14). The Apostle Paul refers to James, Peter and John as ‘pillars’ and explains that James had a special ministry amongst Jewish people (Galatians 2:7-9). Peter recognised James’ authority (Acts 12:17). James presided at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13) and is also mentioned in Acts 21:18.

James was written around AD40-45 and this was the first letter of the New Testament epistles in the era before the temple was destroyed in AD70. James wrote to a specific audience. The plain reading of the text confirms that he wrote to the twelve tribes scattered abroad.

“The twelve tribes refers to Jews and is not merely a metaphor for Christians, as some Christian commentators maintain. This is clear from the style of the letter generally, and particularly from the fact that they had synagogues (James 2:2). Not that Gentile Christians were excluded from reading it, but that the leader of the Messianic Jewish Community in Jerusalem is addressing fellow believers in the Diaspora outside Israel.”[i]

Upon reading the book of James it is evident that a major problem was believers failing to practise what they were preaching. They also faced great trials and numerous personal issues as well as congregational issues. James is an intensely practical book dealing with actions and ethics, more so than doctrine. There are many parallels with Proverbs to encourage godly living and more than 40 allusions to the Tanakh/Old Testament, more than 20 allusions to the Sermon on the Mount and around 30 natural illustrations for spiritual application.

Two key verses are:

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).

“Do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead” (James 2:20)?

James was written before Paul’s epistles and it is not a polemic about justification by faith. The believer is saved by grace through faith, and they have also been created for good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). Works are important since they are the outworking and evidence of faith in action, although works do not in any way contribute to one’s salvation which is a gift from God.

James was Yeshua’s half brother though in James 1:1, he humbly describes himself as a bondservant (doulos) of the Lord Jesus. James was an apostle, leader, pillar of the congregation at Jerusalem and the ‘Chairman’ at the Jerusalem Council. Note however that he does not appeal to his family lineage or credentials but rather the opposite! James was not into self-promotion but instead God exultation. What an example of godly humility. He used his authority to serve the Lord showing that godly thinking leads to a godly lifestyle.

The purpose of trials

But why does James count it all joy when one falls into various trials? James was not advocating naïve or fake optimism, i.e. great, I have just broken my leg and everything is good, right? He was not teaching extreme aesthetics by looking to fall into various trials and neither was he espousing stoicism and taking it all on the chin with mere noble indifference.

The purpose/goal in verse four is so that you and I may be complete (mature), lacking nothing. The word ‘perfect’ here does not mean ‘sinless’ but the Greek ‘telios’ means mature and complete. In context this refers to the improvement of our mental character so that our thinking is godly. If our thinking and actions are godly than our actions will be more like Jesus, the Messiah.

Trials can of course produce sorrow and they are an end to a means since joy follows. But how? With giving birth, the trial is immensely painful, the trial is giving birth, but the joyful outcome is the birth of a child. When you face a trial, how do you respond? Do you consider what may be learnt from the experience, sorrowful and painful though it might be? Also, how can I use what I have learnt from this difficult trial to help others going through similar trials now?

Importantly, James states that if we are lacking in wisdom, we should ask God for wisdom who gives to all liberally. What image comes into your mind if I describe a ‘wise person’? An old man with a calm demeaner and an overgrown beard? Someone skilled at solving puzzles or unravelling enigmas and making wise decisions? Maybe from a Greek mindset. Fructenbaum helpfully explains, “The Jewish concept of wisdom was the practise of righteousness in daily living. That is the emphasis of wisdom in the Book of Proverbs: not just having a mental ability but being able to practise righteousness in daily living.”[ii]

We need wisdom to correct our thinking so we can live and respond to life situations or trials biblically. Wisdom is not simply amassing knowledge but rather the skilful application of useful knowledge for godly purpose. Consider Solomon who was wise to ask the Lord for wisdom and it was granted to him in abundance, which is similar compared with what James describes in James 1:5. Wisdom should be near the top of our bucket list! We should desire God’s wisdom so our lives are meaningful and please Him and it would be prudent to continue asking the Lord for wisdom in the scenarios we encounter. Godly wisdom is of great gain enabling the believer to be a doer as well as a hearer of the word of God.

James instructs us that we should ask in faith, without doubting, but how is that possible? This is not merely a matter of reprogramming our mind to expect a positive outcome in prayer. If your faith is in the Lord and you are trusting in Him and asking according to His will, you can ask in confidence because of who He is. Think of the centurion who had a servant who was dear to him, was sick, and ready to die. The Jewish elders implored Jesus to heal his servant for he loved the nation and built them a synagogue. The centurion did not consider himself worthy to meet the Lord Jesus but if He only said the word, his servant would be healed. Yeshua responded that he had not found such great faith and not even in Israel!

Doubting people are compared with a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. Yet even the wind and the waves obeyed Yeshua in the storm on the Sea of Galilee. His talmidim (disciples), were rebuked since at the time they were fearful and of little faith. Similarly, we must look to the Lord and trust in Him. Godly thinking includes expecting the Lord to grant us wisdom during trials. Doubting is the opposite of faith and instead of being anchored, one if buffeted and thrown around. Doubting questions the Lord’s ability and goodness and it is important that we trust in Him.

A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways. Inevitably double-minded thinking results in double-minded actions. Someone who has endured trials and trusted in the Lord will be mature and complete. Being double-minded is the opposite of someone mature and is akin to being tossed around and thrown about in the sea. Double-mindedness is not so much about hypocrisy or being two faced, but rather fickleness and instability. When someone is brought to repentance, they turn to the Lord, think differently and have a different outlook, through faith in Him.

But what could someone do if they find themselves thinking as the double-minded person? “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8).

The trials of the rich and poor

What trials do rich and poor believers encounter? Why does the lowly brother glory in exaltation and the rich brother glory in humiliation? In street outreach, sadly the poor sometimes reason that God does not love them and the rich speculate that they do not need the Lord! The wisdom of Agur from the book of Proverbs gives us timeless perspective here:

“Two things I request of You (Deprive me not before I die): Remove falsehood and lies far from me; Give me neither poverty nor riches-Feed me with the food allotted to me; Lest I be full and deny You, And say, “Who is the Lord?” Or lest I be poor and steal, And profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:7-8).

Poverty is a trial for the poor, yet they can exalt and glory in knowing God and that will help. Prosperity is a trial for the rich and they may forget their Creator, but remembering the brevity of life will give them eternal rather than worldly perspective.

James is not saying that it is wrong to be wealthy, but like a flower of the field, we will all pass away. Isaiah 40:8 tells us “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” Whether you are wealthy or less affluent, you will face trials, so make it your goal to trust in the Lord instead of yourself. Like our lives, the hot sirocco winds scorch grass suddenly and it withers away. Draw near to God and remember that trials can improve godly character pleasing to God.

Serving God amidst trials

Those enduring temptation and who have been approved, will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those that love Him (James 1:12). James knew exactly what it meant to suffer and endure trials and he would receive the crown of life. Eusebius bears witness of James’ godly character and how he died and was martyred for his trust in the Lord.

Another trial is temptation. Part of godly thinking and living is evaluating our attitudes. How do you and I respond to temptation? Do you blame the Lord or accuse Him? Some people blame the Lord although that is immoral, irrational and indefensible. The Lord permits us to face trials, though He does not tempt us. God cannot be tempted by evil though He may test us and the Lord proved He could not be tempted by evil when He was tested by the devil in the wilderness.

Some blame God and some blame others. Adam blamed the Lord and Eve. Eve blamed the serpent. The same happens today. Believers will face temptation from the world, the devil and their flesh. These things can tempt us, but we sin when we are led by our own desires (James 1:14).

How can someone make a concerted effort to fight temptation? The process involved must be considered and countered. How is sin born? We are drawn by our own desires and lusts and so desire conceives. Fructenbaum and Stern both compare this with the ‘yetzer hara’ evil inclination described in rabbinical Judaism. It gives birth to sin, the sin develops and matures and when it is full grown, brings forth death.

How can this be avoided? Nip sin in the bud before it conceives and understand and recognise the process involved. So, you see something you should not be looking at. Do not take that second look! You have a thought you know that you should not be thinking. Bury that thought! Remember godly thinking leads to godly action and fleshly thinking causes sin and when full grown it produces death.

We are told not to be deceived which means we should not blame the Lord for our sin or presume that he is ‘tempting’ us. These problems arise from spiritual immaturity. When I worked in the fields in Zambia a friend killed a black mamba. In Malawi, a baby scorpion was heading for my rucksack, so I quickly splatted it. Imagine if my friend grabbed the black mamba by the tail to show off or if I exhibited the baby scorpion in a matchbox to display as a novelty! If the snake bit us, we might have died before we could reach a hospital and the baby scorpion could have caused serious harm. Do not play with sin or entertain ‘little sins.’ The purpose of trials is to bring about godly maturity that honours the Lord through godly action.

Every good and perfect gift is from God, so instead of blaming the Lord for our trials we should recognise His perfect character and sovereignty in our lives. ‘The Father of lights’ speaks of His perfect work in creation and with Him there is no variation or shadow of turning, the Lord does not change and Yeshua the Messiah is the same yesterday, today and forever (Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8).

Who are you following?

We must keep in mind that Jacov/James was writing to a Jewish audience-the twelve tribes and the Jewish believers were a kind of firstfruits of further innumerable Jewish and Gentile believers. We began with James/Jacob and we will end with him. James was the Lord’s brother, though he was not one of His disciples until after His resurrection. But then James believed in earnest and practised what he preached and his life as well as his words, were his testimony. You may have heard much of Jesus the Messiah, but are you now following Him and has your life taken a change of direction and purpose? Have you turned to Jesus the Rabbi, the Man from Galilee, the most worshipped Person ever and are you trusting in Him?

[i] David H. Stern Jewish New Testament Commentary (Jewish New Testament Publications Inc., 1992; Clarksville), p725

[ii] Arnold Fructenbaum Ariel’s Bible Commentary The Messianic Jewish Epistles Hebrews-James I & II Peter-Jude (Ariel Ministries, 2005; San Antonio), p219-220