Chin up, and control those urges
Hello1From: James, who serves God and our leader, Jesus the Messiah.
To: The 12 tribes scattered everywhere. Hello to all of you out there.
Bright side of hard times2Let me tell you something, family. When hard times come, I want you to look on the bright side. 3Hard times test your faith. But they also build your faith muscles by strengthening your endurance. 4Let endurance do its job. Let it shape you into the perfect model of mature faith—absolutely complete, missing nothing.
5If you feel like you’re a little low in the wisdom category, and you make too many bad decisions, ask God for a wisdom boost. He’s generous with everyone. He’ll give you what you need. And he won’t ask for anything in return. 6But when you ask God for help, you’ve got to believe he can help you. Don’t doubt him. A doubter is like a wave lost at sea. It goes wherever the wind blows. When the storms come, it splashes itself crazy. 7If you’re like that, don’t count on getting anything from the Lord. 8People like that can’t make up their mind. They’re dependably undependable and reliably unreliable.
Happily poor, pitifully rich9Chin up, believers who don’t have much in this world to call their own. You have something better: God’s respect. 10Rich folks can wallow in their glory—until they glory in their humiliation. They’ll share the fate of a flowering weed. 11The sun will rise and its heat will scorch the meadow and sear the flower. That pretty flower is going to wilt to ugly and drop dead in the dirt. That’s what happens to rich people who don’t realize what’s going on as they go about their business of getting richer.
Don’t chase your desire into danger zones12Folks who hang onto their faith through hard times should celebrate. They should be happy. They now know their faith is genuine because it didn’t back down. Those folks are going to get the reward that the Lord promised to everyone who loves him: life. 13When you’re tempted, don’t blame God. Don’t be saying, “God tempted me.” He’s not tempted or a tempter. He can’t be tempted to do something wrong. And he’s not going to tempt someone to do it, either. 14People are tempted when they let their desires lure them out of bounds into danger zones. 15When desire gives birth to lust, sin is born. When sin grows up, it’s a killer.
16Dear family, don’t let your desires drag you down this road. 17Every good gift, every perfect gift comes from above. It’s from the Father of light, who created the sun and moon and stars. He doesn’t live under shifting shadows, sometimes in the light and sometimes in the dark. 18In all of creation, we’re God’s favorite. He planned it that way. He brought us to life with words, spoken in truth.
Don’t just listen to God’s message; live it19Listen up. I want you to get this. Dear family, all of us need to be quick to listen and slow to get angry and start talking. 20Righteous anger? Come on. Our anger has nothing to do with God’s righteousness. It doesn’t come from righteousness and it doesn’t go there. 21So stop it. Get rid of all that persistently rotten, depraved behavior. Embrace the message you’ve heard. Take it to heart humbly because it can save your souls.
22Don’t kid yourself. You can’t get by with just listening to what God has to say. You’ve got to live by it. 23Let me tell you this, a person who listens to God’s message but doesn’t do anything about it is like a man who looks at his face in the mirror. 24Then the second he walks away, he forgets what he looks like.
25But there’s another kind of person. This one looks long and hard into God’s perfect law, which sets us free. People like this don’t just hear the message. They put it on their calendar, they live it, and they make it a continuing part of their life. Those folks will be happy they did. 26We lie to ourselves if we think we’re practicing good religion when we give our tongue free reign to run wild. Religion like that is worthless. 27I can tell you what God sees as the purest religion. Here it is: Take care of the orphans and widows when they face hard times. And don’t let the world stain you.
“James.” It’s not clear which James wrote this letter, though many scholars lobby for the brother of Jesus. There are about half a dozen men named James in the Bible story of Jesus. Two of his dozen disciples are named James (Luke 6:14-15). James is also one of his four brothers, perhaps the oldest, since he is listed first (Matthew 13:55). Some Christians—including many Catholics and Eastern Orthodox—teach that James was only an older stepbrother, born to Joseph’s first wife. As the story goes, Joseph’s first wife died, leaving him with four sons and some daughters. Scholars say that might help explain why dying Jesus, hanging on the cross, entrusted Mary’s care to John, one of his best friends and closest disciples (John 19:26-27). Perhaps Jesus considered John better suited to taking care of his mother, or to looking after her until she returned to her stepchildren. Most other Christians, including many Protestants, say Mary was the birth mother of James and the other brothers and sisters of Jesus. Mary remained connected to the brothers and sisters of Jesus, sometimes traveling with them (Matthew 12:46). Paul didn’t call the brothers of Jesus “stepbrothers.” He simply called them “our leader’s brothers” (1 Corinthians 9:5). He also called James “the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19). Many say it was this James who became leader of the Jerusalem church, and who apparently convened the first church leadership meeting (Acts 15). Jewish historian Josephus (about AD 37-100) reported that the Jerusalem-based Jewish high priest ordered the execution of James “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ” (Antiquities of the Jews, book 20, chapter 9, section 1). Josephus says Jews stoned him to death, estimated in about AD 62, a few years before Nero is said to have ordered Paul beheaded and Peter crucified upside-down.
“Twelve tribes.” Bible experts debate who James addressed. The 12 tribes of Israel were actually extended families descended from the dozen sons of Jacob, grandson of Abraham. Taken literally, the “12 tribes” would have meant the Jews. It’s possible James meant just the Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah. Paul led the mission work among non-Jews. James in Jerusalem, along with apostles such as Peter, seemed to focus more on convincing Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. Some Bible experts speculate that James may have been thinking of all believers, since they now represent the new Israel. Paul put it this way: “You are the true Israel—the authentic people of God” (Galatians 6:16). Peter called them “God’s chosen” (1 Peter 2:9 Contemporary English Version).
It’s unclear if James is talking about rich Christians or rich unbelievers. If he’s talking about rich Christians, some scholars say he’s telling them not to get snooty about their wealth. If James is talking about rich unbelievers, he may be saying they can party now because they won’t be partying when they stand before their Judge.
“Reward,” is more literally “crown of life.” A crown is often a symbol of a reward. And “life” seems to refer to something more than life on earth. The Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish book written during the first century AD, describes the reward of godly people this way: “The righteous live forever, and their reward is with the Lord; the Most High takes care of them. Therefore they will receive a glorious crown” (5:15-16).
Many Bible experts say this is a symbolic way of teaching that God never changes, either in who he is or in the way he deals with people.
More literally, the “word of truth.” James seems to be double-dipping the symbols in this verse, some scholars say, referring to Creation and to the good news of Christianity. James is possibly pointing back to creation, when God spoke humanity into existence. It started on Day One. “God said, ‘Lights.’ Lights came on” (Genesis 1:3). But James may be referring, also, to what Paul called the “word of truth” (2 Corinthians 6:7), the good news of Jesus that helps us endure hard times.
James explains in 2:8 what he means by “perfect law.” He’s talking about making a commitment to love others like we love ourselves.
James seems to be warning the readers not to pick up the bad behavior of the secular world. God’s people should resemble Jesus on a mission, not the devil on vacation.
Scholars debate which James of the half-dozen in the New Testament wrote this letter. Given the tone and content of James 1, which of the two top contenders do you think this sounds most like.
- James, son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ disciples. This James was also one of his three best friends, along with Peter and John, the brother of James. Jesus nicknamed the brothers “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). They once went ballistic when some people in a village turned Jesus away. The brothers offered to burn the city by “calling down a lightning storm of fire from the sky” (Luke 9:54).
- James the brother of Jesus, who is also often considered the leader of the first church council meeting (Acts 15). Though Peter is typically considered leader of the disciples, it was James who made a final ruling in that meeting and wrote it up for the scattered churches.
James says “If you feel like you’re a little low in the wisdom category, and you make too many bad decisions, ask God for a wisdom boost. He’s generous with everyone. He’ll give you what you need” (1:5). What kind of wisdom do you think James had in mind? What kind of wisdom do you think people today need boosted?
James tells us to ask God for help when we need it. But he says, too, “Don’t doubt him. A doubter is like a wave lost at sea. It goes wherever the wind blows. When the storms come, it splashes itself crazy. If you’re like that, don’t count on getting anything from the Lord” (1:6-7). Why put the burden on us? What’s wrong with having some doubts about a spiritual being we’ve never even shaken hands with?
James follows a well-walked path among writers of Bible books and Jesus himself. He’s up on the poor and down on the rich. James encourages the poor. They might not have a shekel in their lamb bank (piggy banks weren’t kosher). But they have “something better: God’s respect” (1:9). The rich, on the other hand, are going to burn like “a flowering weed” (1:10). Why do you think Bible writers so often target the class of people that, today, we often praise for their wealth?
We’ve got a theological problem with temptation. James says God has nothing to do with temptation. “Don’t be saying, ‘God tempted me.’ He’s not tempted or a tempter” (1:13). Then why did Jesus, in his model prayer, say to God, “Don’t test us with temptations,” (Luke 11:4)? How do you think we can reconcile these two views of temptation? Or is it okay if James got something a little wrong in the letter he was writing?
James is not particularly clear, some say, when he writes that God “doesn’t live under shifting shadows, sometimes in the light and sometimes in the dark” (1:17). What do you think James was trying to say here?
LIFE APPLICATION. James, who sounds like a positive thinker, tells people to look on the bright side of hard times. “Hard times test your faith. But they also build your faith muscles by strengthening your endurance. Let endurance do its job. Let it shape you into the perfect model of mature faith” (1:3-4). Really? And it all starts with hard times? Can you think of any examples of that in your life or in the lives of the people you know?
LIFE APPLICATION James seems to say there’s no such thing as righteous anger “Our anger has nothing to do with God’s righteousness. It doesn’t come from righteousness and it doesn’t go there” (1:20). People who know the Bible stories often associate righteous anger with Jesus flipping over the tables of currency exchangers and of other merchants working in the Jerusalem Temple (Matthew 21:12). Two questions. First, what do we associate righteous anger with today? Second, what makes that anger seem righteous or perhaps unrighteous?
LIFE APPLICATION. Apparently, there were do-nothing Christians from the very beginning. Here in the first generation of Christians, James is already telling people they have to do more than sit and listen to a sermon. “Don’t kid yourself. You can’t get by with just listening to what God has to say. You’ve got to live by it” (1:22). If we can ask James how he expects us to live it, what do you think he might say?