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Chapter Commentary

1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion, greeting.2 Count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into manifold temptations;3 Knowing that the proving of your faith worketh patience.4 And let patience have its perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking in nothing.5 But if any of you lacketh wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all liberally and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.6 But let him ask in faith, nothing doubting: for he that doubteth is like the surge of the sea driven by the wind and tossed.7 For let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord;8 a doubleminded man, unstable in all his ways.9 But let the brother of low degree glory in his high estate:10 and the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.11 For the sun ariseth with the scorching wind, and withereth the grass: and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: so also shall the rich man fade away in his goings.12 Blessed is the man that endureth temptation; for when he hath been approved, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord promised to them that love him.13 Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God; for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempteth no man:14 but each man is tempted, when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed.15 Then the lust, when it hath conceived, beareth sin: and the sin, when it is fullgrown, bringeth forth death.16 Be not deceived, my beloved brethren.17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, neither shadow that is cast by turning.18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.19 Ye know this, my beloved brethren. But let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:20 for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.21 Wherefore putting away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves.23 For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a mirror:24 for he beholdeth himself, and goeth away, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.25 But he that looketh into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and so continueth, being not a hearer that forgetteth but a doer that worketh, this man shall be blessed in his doing.26 If any man thinketh himself to be religious, while he bridleth not his tongue but deceiveth his heart, this mans religion is vain.27 Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
Chapter Introduction

I want to begin with a question – who wrote the epistle attributed to James? What can we know about James?

The letter of James begins with the identification of the author simply as "James," further described in general terms as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Evidently this particular James was sufficiently well known to his readers as not to require further identification. Who then, was this James? The New Testament refers to a number of people bearing this name: James the son of Zebedee and brother of John who was martyred by Herod (see Acts 12:2), James the son of Alphaeus who was one of the twelve (Matthew 10:3), James the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3), James the Less whose mother Mary was present at the crucifixion of Jesus (Mark 15:40), James the father of Judas who was also one of the twelve, and to be distinguished from Judas Iscariot (Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13), James the brother of Jude (Jude 1), and finally, James, the author of our letter. Robert Wall contends that most scholars believe that the best candidate for James-the-letter-writer is James the brother of Jesus (545). Duling and Perrin contend precisely the opposite, arguing that most scholars believe the work to be pseudonymous, although undoubtedly referring to this particular James (482; cf. the table in Davids, 4). A number of recent evangelical commentators have analysed the various arguments against the traditional idea that the author is in fact James the brother of Jesus, and have concluded that the arguments are less than convincing, and that consequently there is no good reason to reject the traditional view.

The main arguments against the traditional view are:

  1. The Greek of the letter is too sophisticated for a working-class Jew from Galilee. This argument ignores the degree of interaction between Jews and Greeks in Galilee in the period when James was a child, as well as the testimony of Acts which portrays the church in Jerusalem as composed of both Hebrew and Greek-speaking believers, and James as one who cites the Septuagint in Acts 15:17-18.
  2. The James we see in Acts is so Jewish and so conservatively so, he could not possibly be the author of this letter. It is true that Acts 21:15-26 portrays James as one "zealous for the Law," and who makes a distinction between Jewish and gentile Christians. Yet the Letter of James is also thoroughly Jewish in its style, orientation and world of thought. The James of the letter is concerned for the purity of the people (1:27; 3:17), their faithful observance of the Law (1:25; 2:8, 10-12; 4:11-12), the plight of the poor (1:27 – 2:17)—all consonant with the picture of James found in Acts and Galatians 2.
  3. The section on faith and works in chapter two must be understood as a reaction to central themes in Paul’s writings which only entered into wider circulation in the late first century—well after the time of James’ death in 62. While it may be true that Paul’s writings were only distributed in this later period, his ideas were certainly in circulation much earlier, and were, in fact, a major issue at the council held in Jerusalem in Acts 15. Some scholars, therefore, argue that rather than indicating a late composition, this theme in James indicates early composition. James is reacting, not so much to Paul’s more formal statements contained in his letters, but to erroneous applications of his ideas amongst the congregations he is writing to, in the early period of Paul’s ministry, and before the Jerusalem council which is not mentioned in letter. Thus, these scholars argue for a date in the mid to late forties, making James one of the earliest books of the New Testament. (See, for example, Carson, Moo & Morris, 410-413; McKnight, 13-38; Moo, 19-30; Vlachos, 3-5.)

This is not to suggest that the arguments for the traditional position are necessarily persuasive. Scot McKnight, for example, accepts the traditional view as the best option, but notes that it hardly compelling, and thus not something to be overly dogmatic about (37). Davids agrees. Although there is evidence for an early date, it is not conclusive. Thus he suggests that the core material of the letter originates with James-the-brother-of-Jesus, but was edited later, perhaps after James’ death, as the church became more gentile in its composition and location (21-22). This view, of course, sees James as a later composition.

If we accept the traditional view, what can we know of James, the Lord’s brother? Mark’s account suggests that Jesus was the eldest of five brothers (James, Joses, Judas and Simon), and that he had at least two sisters. If Mark’s order of the brothers is chronological, James would have been the next after Jesus. We know also that in the earlier days of Jesus’ ministry James and his other brothers did not believe in Jesus (John 7:1-5), and in fact, thought that he was not in full command of his faculties (Mark 3:20-21; cf. 31-35). Yet Luke notes that Jesus’ brothers—including James, we suppose—were part of the company that met "with one mind … continually devoting themselves to prayer" in the upper room after the ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:14). What had happened to turn their unbelief? We find a clue to the answer in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: "then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles" (v. 7).  I grew up in a family of six boys, often at strife with one another, and I can only imagine some of the things James may have said to his elder brother! Yet in an act of grace as much human as divine, the resurrected Jesus appeared to James, and, although we have no record of what transpired at that meeting, its impact on James evidently was immediate and lasting. Some years later when Paul wrote to the Galatians he mentions James of one of those who "were of reputation" in Jerusalem, and names James ahead of Cephas (Peter) and John as those reputed to be "pillars" in the church (Galatians 2:2, 9). That James appears to be the leader of the church in Jerusalem is affirmed again a few verses later when Paul speaks of "the coming of certain men from James" (v. 12).

Further testimony to James’ growing stature in the Christian community at Jerusalem is seen in Acts. After Peter’s miraculous release from prison he went to a house where believers had gathered in prayer. After assuring them of his safety he instructs the gathered believers to "report these things to James and the brethren" (12:17). In chapter fifteen James appears as the head of the church in Jerusalem, likely Peter’s successor after the latter’s escape from prison and subsequent "disappearance." James sums up the proceedings of the meeting and his recommendation, framed theologically according to Scripture, is accepted by all those present. We hear of James once more in Luke’s account when Paul, during his final trip to Jerusalem, went in with the brethren "to James, and all the elders were present" (Acts 21:17-18).

One final question here concerns what became of James. The ancient church historian, Eusebius, records two early traditions concerning the death of James (see especially Church History book II, chapter 23). The traditions, deriving from Hegesippus and Josephus, indicate that James was known as James-the-Just, a righteous and prayerful man held in esteem by both Christian and non-Christian Jews. According to Eusebius, James was accused to Ananus the high priest and consequently executed as a martyr in 61 or 62BCE.

In the book of James, then, we have Christian testimony from the earliest days of the church, by one who we think was the very brother of Jesus, a man of holy and widespread reputation, one who gave his life as a martyr, another "of whom the world was not worthy," and thus now acknowledged as a hero of the faith, who, "though dead, yet speaks" (see Hebrews 11:4, 38). We do well, therefore, to give our very best attention to his message.

Brief Quotations
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History of Interpretation
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Verse by Verse Exegesis


James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.

The first word of the letter is simply the author’s name, following the custom of ancient letter writing practices. This James is apparently so well known that he can be recognised simply by mention of his name. There are really only two "Jameses" in the New Testament who are sufficiently prominent to qualify as this James: James the brother of John, one of the twelve, who was martyred by Herod (see Acts 12:2), and James the brother of Jesus, who became leader of the church in Jerusalem. Last week we suggested that the latter is best thought of as the writer.

But James does not set forth his privileged relationship to Jesus as the basis of his right to gain the attention and hearing of his audience, but refers to himself rather as a "bond-servant (doulos) of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ." To claim to be a servant of God is not uncommon within Judaism, but to claim also to be a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ is to immediately distinguish oneself from mainstream Judaism, indicated by assigning these particular titles—Lord and Christ—to this particular man. Christos (Christ) is simply the Greek rendering of the Hebrew term for Messiah, while kyrios (Lord) is the Greek term used in the Septuagint to translate the Tetragrammaton (YHWH)—the holy name of the Lord God. To refer to the man Jesus as Lord and Christ is to associate him with the Old Testament God, and as God’s eschatological saviour, the Messiah. This, of course, constitutes a decisive claim within Judaism: the Messiah has come! God has acted to redeem his people. His eschatological salvation has appeared amongst the human community, precisely in this particular man, Jesus, whom we must also acknowledge as Lord.

James addresses his letter "to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad." This is unusual language because technically, the twelve tribes no longer exist, the northern kingdom of Israel having been taken into captivity by Assyria many centuries earlier (see 2 Kings 17). It is likely that James is using the phrase simply to identify ethnic Jews, and perhaps more particularly, Jewish believers in Jesus "who are dispersed abroad" (tais en tē diaspora). The noun diaspora referred to those Jews who lived outside of Palestine; the term was both ethnic and geographical (Trebilco, 287, 297-299). If we accept that the epistle was written by James the brother of Jesus sometime in the 40s, it could be that he is writing especially to those Jewish believers who had been part of the Jerusalem congregation, but then had been "scattered throughout" the regions of Judea and Samaria in the persecution that arose after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:2, 4). Indeed, Acts 11:19 tells of some of those "scattered" who went to the gentile regions of Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. In each of these texts the verb used is diaspeir," the cognate of the noun used in James 1:1 (and the only times the verbal form occurs in the New Testament). By means of his letter, James is extending pastoral care and oversight to these followers of Jesus in their scattered locations, who, as former members of the Jerusalem community, would have been aware of James’ identity, leadership and authority.

Might James have had an evangelistic as well as a pastoral motive for writing this letter? Might he be writing to Jews more generally who are now being brought into contact with Christian Jews, and encouraging them to believe in Christ? This is unlikely, given the very few references to Jesus in the letter. James is writing to exhort Christian Jews to faithful endurance in the midst of their suffering and hardship, and to perhaps to counter reports he has heard concerning disunity in their midst.

"Greetings!" James’ salutation is to the point. This form of salutation is found elsewhere in the New Testament only in Acts 15:23—in the letter from the council of Jerusalem. But it is a common form of greeting in Greek letters, which also indicates James’ familiarity with the Greek style (Moo, 58). The word itself—charein—literally means "to rejoice" and thus also forms a fitting segue to the next verse.

Though a simple salutation, this verse lends itself to at least a couple of applications for Christian life and ministry. First, James could have introduced himself as the brother of Jesus, claiming elevated rank, privilege and authority. But James does not "pull rank" on his readers choosing rather to describe himself simply as a servant. This is consonant with Jesus’ teaching that those who would be great in the kingdom of God must take the lower place, becoming servants and following his own example: "for even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (see Mark 10:42-45; cf. John 13:1-17). Further, it is fitting: if Jesus is the Lord-Christ, the Messiah-King (McKnight), then to be his servant is in itself a high and distinguished calling.

Second, James is concerned not simply for the believers surrounding him, those he can see, but for those who have been scattered, those under pressure, those who have left, and those far away. Out of sight is not out of mind for James the Just. Undoubtedly the prayerful man prays for them; here he writes to make contact, to encourage and exhort. Pastoral authority is grounded in pastoral care, pastoral leadership in humble service.


My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it all joy

James’ opening salvo is as firm as it is strange. Unlike most New Testament letters which begin with a blessing and/or a prayer, James is straight down to business, exhorting his listeners to consider it "all joy" whenever they face trials of any kind. The focus on joy (chara) builds on the final word of the first verse Greetings (charein), and so forms a link between the opening verse and the new section. Translating Pasan charan hēgēsasthe as "consider it all joy"(NASB) is to be preferred, for "consider it nothing but joy" (NRSV) suggests that the only legitimate emotional response one may experience during testing is joy, whereas people experiencing trial will typically feel a range of responses, and James exhorts them to joy. Of course, to be joyful in the midst of trials, and indeed to consider it a joyful thing to fall into trial, is counter-intuitive. To fall into trial is to experience stress and pressure, if not distress and suffering. James’ intent in this section, then, is not simply to issue a bare exhortation but to also show why and how one can consider such an event as an occasion for joy, indeed, "pure joy" or "all joy."

The exhortation is addressed to "my brothers and sisters" (adelphoi mou), that is, fellow believers and as such those who are in the family. James is calling for a fundamental and radical shift of attitude. Whereas we typically view trials as a source or occasion of displeasure, anxiety, frustration or even despair, James calls us to view them as an occasion for joy. To consider something is an exercise of mind, will and vision, especially in a circumstance in which trials are anything but joyful. Vlachos (16) notes that the verb (hēgēsasthe) in the New Testament is almost always used in terms of a value judgement. Thus, in spite of their discomfort or distress, the believer is encouraged to view their trials in a new light, and so to respond to them in an unexpected way. Not only are they called to rejoice in the midst of trials, but to see the trial itself as an opportunity for rejoicing.

James calls his audience to adopt this posture whenever they fall into all kinds of trials (hotan peirasmois peripesēte poikilois). The word for trial (peirasmos) can refer, depending on context, either to temptations towards sin which arise from within (cf. v. 14), or to the kinds of afflictions which press upon us from without. Here the second meaning suits the context best, for these are trials that we fall into. McKnight (75-76) argues that James has in mind a very particular context of economic hardship and oppression, and the subsequent temptation faced by his audience to react to this hardship with anger and violence. However the general terms used by James in this text (whenever, any kind (poikilois basically means various)) suggest that he is thinking of trials in general, of trials whenever they come, and of trials in any and all guises. Thus, in all the various kinds of trial and affliction that a person may encounter, James offers this counsel: rejoice! J. B. Phillips’ rendering of this verse captures the sense James intended (478): "When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders but welcome them as friends!" Just why and how a believer might do this is the theme of verses 3-4.


because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance;

In this verse, James provides the first rationale for his command in verse two. Believers are to "consider it all joy" when they fall into various trials because they know (ginoskontes hoti) something: that the trial of their faith produces endurance. James assumes this knowledge on the part of his listeners, as though it constitutes a common stock of knowledge generally available. The word James uses to refer to the testing (to dokimion) of their faith is rare in the Greek, appearing elsewhere only in Psalm 12:6, Proverbs 27:21 (Septuagint), and in 1 Peter 1:7. The Old Testament references provide useful imagery for understanding the nature of trials. As a furnace is used to "refine" and "purify" silver, so the tests faced by James’ hearers serve also to refine and purify them. The imagery of the furnace captures the unpleasant and potentially destructive force and nature of the testing, while the result of the process is seen as valuable and desirable and so as the grounds for rejoicing.

What is being tested is their faith. According to Vlachos, the trial is intended to refine and strengthen a faith that already exists rather than to test whether faith is present or not (18). This idea seems to align with Peter’s use of the same language in 1 Peter 1:6-7 where he speaks of the suffering believers’ faith being proved or shown to be genuine (dokimion). Indeed, many commentators suggest that the purpose of the test is the purification and maturity of the believer (e.g. McKnight, 69, and Moo, 61). In this view, God is the refiner who places his people into the furnace in order to remove the impurities from their lives and so present them as mature. Nevertheless it is important here to distinguish between purpose and effect when interpreting these verses. It is at least possible that in James’ mind the purpose of the tests is to destroy the faith of God’s people. This is a quite common mindset in the New Testament, and sees the origin of the tests in the more sinister agency of Satan, the "accuser of the brethren" (Revelation 12:10), rather than in the more benevolent attentions of God. Perhaps more directly relevant to this passage is Paul’s concern in 1 Thessalonians 3:5 that "the tempter" (ho peirazov) might have rendered his missionary labour amongst the Thessalonians vain by the persecutions they endured, or Jesus’ words to Peter in Luke 22:31-32: "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail." In both cases the blowtorch is applied to the believers’ faith with the intent of destroying it, and in both cases there is the theoretical possibility at least, that their faith might actually be lost. Other texts might also be adduced. Jesus warns that "Satan comes immediately" to take away the Word whenever it is sown (Mark 4:15; cf. 2 Corinthians 11:3). The pattern is seen in his own temptations following his experience of the Spirit at his baptism (Luke 4:1-13). The apostle Peter speaks of "your adversary the devil" who prowls around like a roaring lion seeking those whom he may devour. Nor are Peter’s readers unique in this respect: all believers are subject to this common suffering and must likewise stand firm in faith, resisting the devil (1 Peter 5:8-9; cf. James 4:7-8). The classic texts of Ephesians 6:10-18 and Revelation 12:7-17 situate these tests within the broader drama of cosmic spiritual warfare and an apocalyptic worldview.

To read James according to this view is to think of the tests as a threat to faith. As such, they do not have a divinely intended purpose, nor are they "sent by God to teach us or perfect us" as is commonly said in Christian circles. Rather, as specific tactics in an ongoing war against the people of God, they intend not to build or develop faith but to destroy it. Their purpose is not to teach us but to tempt us, not to lead the believer towards maturation but capitulation, so that they lose faith in God and let go of the hope that faith inspires.

It may be that many modern readers react against the apocalyptic character of this worldview and prefer to understand sin and evil in more human or institutional terms, rather than in terms of an evil spiritual personality. In fact, it is possible that James’ central point is retained, even if the apocalyptic background is stripped from the passage. It is possible that the trials arise as an aspect of the church’s location "between the times," in this period in which the kingdom of God has found entry into the world and is growing in the world but is not yet fully realised in the world. The way of the kingdom is antithetical to the way of the world and results in pressure being brought to bear upon the lives of those who choose this new way. It may be that the tests arise simply as part of the conditions of life, the normal pressures and stresses of existence which challenge the idea of God’s existence or God’s care. The very real afflictions, pressure and suffering experienced by Christians may cause them to despair of God’s goodness or power or both.

James notes that the testing of their faith produces endurance (katergazetai hypomonē). Katergatzetai simply means "to produce," although the erg-root in the verb is related to "work" and so anticipates ergon ("work") in verse four. The verb is in the present tense, indicating a process or progression culminating in endurance. Hypomonē literally has the sense of "remaining under," and so bearing up in the midst of difficult or challenging circumstances. It refers not to passive acceptance or resignation in the face of these circumstances, but is an active, strong and positive resistance of them. Hypomonē, therefore, characterises those who hold themselves steady in the midst of pressure. In the early Christian community it was a trait highly valued, for only those who had it would truly endure to the end (cf. Matthew 10:22; 24:13). It is used in the epistles, and especially in the book of Revelation, to encourage the embattled church to stand firm, even to the point of death. It is often paired with faith, the two virtues working together to ensure the believer inherits the eschatological promise (e.g. Hebrews 10:35-36 (cf. 6:12); Revelation 13:10).

James is obviously confident that his listeners’ trials are in fact producing endurance, but is it necessarily so? Assuming the interpretation of the verse given above, this outcome is not fait accompli, but in fact dependent upon the believer’s response to their trials. This helps explain James’ appeal in these verses: it is as they live in accordance with what they know, as they count it all joy in the midst of their trials, that the testing of their faith produces endurance. In verses 2-3, then, James calls on the church to rejoice in the midst of their suffering, knowing that their trials will produce this highly valued virtue. The trial which is intended to destroy their faith will in fact strengthen and confirm it if they will stand fast. Indeed, by standing fast in the midst of the trial, more endurance will develop, and they will grow stronger and have more capacity for steadfastness in future trials.


and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

James now uses a second imperative to instruct his listeners, commanding them to let (echeto) endurance have its full effect (NRSV), perfect result (NASB), or literally, perfect work (ergon teleion). In view of James’ later discussion of faith and works, it is of interest that he introduces the concept of work here, at the start of his letter. Indeed, as we saw in verse three, the testing of our faith "works" endurance; now the believing community must let this work occur. That is, James commands his listeners to continue to persevere, to "keep on keeping on" for as long as the test continues. The testing of our faith produces endurance as we endure. As a muscle is strengthened through use, so endurance develops through exercise. The temptation is to capitulate before the test has run its course, to relinquish faith, to cave in under pressure, to walk away.

Just as James’ first imperative (consider it all joy) was tied to a foundation of common knowledge (knowing...), so his second imperative is now tied to a purpose statement: so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James now holds before his listeners the end result of endurance if they will allow it to do its work: they will be "perfect." It is impossible to miss James’ play on words in this verse, concerning the perfect work of endurance which results in the perfection of the people of God. The "full effect" or "perfect result" of endurance is not simply to outlast the particular test we are enduring, nor simply to grow more robust in endurance itself. Rather, it is the perfection and completeness of godly character. Perfect (teleios) and complete (holoklēros) function as synonyms, though with a slightly different sense. Teleios connotes a perfection beyond which there is no degree, whereas holoklēros denotes perfection in every part (Vlachos, 20). An interesting parallel to this verse is found in Paul’s prayer of 1 Thessalonians 5:23 where he prays that the Thessalonians may be perfectly sanctified in every aspect of their being, that is, in their whole "spirit and soul and body." Douglas Moo (61) regards this perfection as the eschatological perfection towards which we strive but which will only be realised in the eschaton. Scot McKnight (81f.) prefers to see it not as "sinless perfection," but as real behavioural maturity, a way of life and being in which genuine virtue is a reality rather than simply an abstract ideal.

The final phrase—lacking in nothing—is simply a negative confirmation and restatement of the positive message of being "perfect and complete." To lack nothing, in other words, is to have everything. Such is the power of endurance, in James’ vision of the moral life!

It is worth noting that James directs these exhortations to the community as a whole rather than to individual believers (adelphoi mou – my brothers and sisters; note further that all the grammatical signifiers are second-person plurals). It is the community of God’s people which must rejoice in the midst of hardship and struggle, helping each person to understand their calling, and so to endure. It is the community of God’s people which will ultimately be perfect and entire, lacking in nothing. When one particular member of the community suffers the whole community is threatened. When the community as a whole is under attack, each particular member has a crucial part to play, so that the whole community may be encouraged to rejoice and to endure.


But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, 
who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 

James trusts that through the work of endurance we ultimately will be so complete as to "lack nothing" (v. 4). In the present, however, it is entirely possible that we may lack various attributes, among them, wisdom. This new paragraph continues James’ reflection on the theme of trials, and uses the link-word leipo ("lack") to connect verse five to verse four.

Why does James single out wisdom rather than, say, peace or courage, love or unity? These, too, are significant and worthy virtues, even and especially in the midst of trials. But James directs his listeners to wisdom, and will later devote a whole section to wisdom as something he desires for his listeners. Wisdom is crucial to maturity. Wisdom is important in times of stress and trial. Wisdom guides action and response. Even James’ "knowing" in verse three is an aspect of wisdom. In singling out wisdom, James stands in a long Hebrew tradition which valued wisdom as "the principal thing" (cf. Proverbs 4:7 KJV). The best thing for which we might ask is not deliverance from trials but wisdom that we might conduct ourselves wisely in the midst of them.

What, exactly, is wisdom (sophia)? In the New Testament the term is used with a range of meanings, including the knowledge of God’s plan of salvation or of God’s eschatological purpose (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:18-30; Ephesians 1:8-11). In his first letter to the Corinthians and that to the Colossians, Paul contrasted forms of speculative religious wisdom with the true wisdom which is found in Christ. Members of these communities wanted to appear spiritually wise by claiming secret forms of wisdom by which they knew spiritual mysteries, or the processes by which to become truly spiritual (Colossians 2:8-23). Paul rejects these religious expressions of wisdom as worldly. So, too, James contrasts earthly wisdom with that true wisdom which is from above (3:13-18). Since the true wisdom is from above, it is a gift given by God rather than a natural endowment humanity is graced with or can develop apart from a relationship with God. The wisdom humanity can develop is earth-bound rather than divine. In this text, then, James shows us that wisdom is given to the believer in response to prayer. It is not a speculative kind of wisdom intent on exploring and explaining esoteric spiritual mysteries. It is spiritual wisdom—the gift of God—but is also intensely practical, providing a true perspective on the nature of life and trials, and oriented to the kind of virtuous character befitting the people of God. Moo (62) identifies wisdom as a practically oriented virtue that gives life direction for the godly. It includes insight into God’s will and the way that will is to be applied in the common circumstances of life. For Davids (72), this gift from God enables the believing community to see history from a divine perspective and so also enables them to stand firm in the midst of the trial.

Hence James commands any who lack wisdom to ask for it: aiteito (ask), as a present imperative suggests that God’s people should continually ask for such wisdom, and indeed may do so with great confidence because the God to whom the prayer is addressed is "the giving God." By declaring God to be the giving God (para tou didontos theou) who gives generously or wholeheartedly (haplos) and without reproach (oneidizontos) to all (pasin), James provides great assurance to those who pray to this God for wisdom: "it will be given to them" (kai dothēsetai auto?).

Confidence in prayer is the fruit of confidence in God, which in turn is based upon the knowledge of God’s gracious character and God’s will (cf. 1 John 5:14-15). James simply assumes (no doubt on the basis of the Old Testament, e.g. Proverbs 2:1-5) that God wills to give wisdom to his people. Thus his whole focus is on the generous character of God whose generosity is universal, indiscriminate and inclusive ("to all"; cf. Matthew 5:45 where God gives sunshine and rain to all indiscriminately). This generosity is underlined in James’ use of haplos, which appears in this form only here in the New Testament. The word is usually translated in English versions as "generously" which is an appropriate translation. But it also means "singly" or "simply" in the sense of being undivided, wholehearted, or perhaps best, given the thought James will develop in verses 6-8, "single-mindedly." That is, God is wholeheartedly and single-mindedly generous. Or as Vlachos (25) so nicely states it, "God’s giving is as wholehearted as it is universal." To emphasise the point James also notes that God gives freely and without reproach, without demeaning the recipient or showering them with shame. God is no "fool" who gives with one hand and takes back with another, generous with nothing except criticism (cf. Sirach 20:14-15). Those who come to God in prayer will find that God gives sincerely and without reserve or criticism. God’s commitment to his people is total and unreserved, and so they may expect to receive (Davids, 73). How, then, can we be double-minded toward a God who is so single-mindedly generous?


But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea,
driven and tossed by the wind.

The "let him ask of God" in verse 5 is echoed and extended by the "let him ask in faith" of verse 6. Again James uses a link-word to tie two verses together, this time aiteito (ask). Just as he used the imperative to instruct those who lack wisdom to ask God for it, now he uses the imperative to instruct those who do ask for wisdom, to ask for it in faith. One indeed may lack wisdom but one must not lack faith. Faith, in this context, is single-minded trust in the giving God. James’ logic is simple: if God is so generous and single-minded in his giving, the believer is likewise to be single-minded toward God.

We recall that the believer’s faith is already under threat, being tested and tried (v. 3). Pressure mounts to destroy their faith—their single-minded trust in God. Faith, it seems, governs the relationship the believer has with God. Faith is the characteristic of this relationship seen from the believer’s side. From God’s side the characteristic of this relationship is better understood in terms of grace, of God’s generous and freely given gift. James hints, as we have seen, at this in verse 5. In verses 17-18 he underlines the primacy and centrality of God’s generous gift. At present, however, his focus is on the believer’s appropriate response to God’s generous promise.

Faith is not simply a belief although belief is an important aspect of faith. Faith is not simply agreement with or assent to a doctrinal position, although such knowledge is also an important aspect of faith. Faith includes but is not limited to knowledge or belief. In his Truth Aflame, Larry Hart (420) shows the relation between these three qualities of Christian faith. He notes that since at least the Reformation, theologians have understood saving faith in terms of notitia, that is, the body of knowledge that makes up the truth claim of the gospel, and assensus which refers to the belief one has when they have heard the Christian message and become persuaded of its truthfulness. These two responses, however, are not yet faith in full flower. Simply knowing and believing are not sufficient in themselves but must come to completion in fiducia which is the trust and existential commitment by which we entrust ourselves to God on the basis of his promise which we have heard and which we have acknowledged and believed as true. Faith is a single-minded, existential dependence on God, a watching, waiting and expectant dependence in which the whole being of the believer is oriented and turned toward God in confident and assured hope. Faith is not simply an intellectual commitment, but a relational response and devoted commitment to the God who has awakened our hearts and opened our eyes to his reality, presence and grace.

This is faith as James conceives it here, where he contrasts faith with doubt (diakrinomenos). The two phrases "in faith" and "without any doubting" express the same point from different angles. What is positively expressed in the former expression is negatively expressed in the latter.

Matthew's gospel provides a dramatic illustration of the kind of doubt James has in mind here, in the story of Peter walking on the sea (Matthew 14:22-33). Peter is already participating in the miracle, walking on the water with Jesus and toward Jesus, and on the basis of Jesus' word to him, "Come." But verse 30 indicates that Peter began to give his attention to the wind and waves rather than to Jesus, and as he did so, he began to sink. In the midst of his doubt he cried out to Jesus and was saved. Nevertheless Jesus' question highlights the temptation we continually face: " O you of little faith, why did you doubt?"

To doubt is to engage in dispute with oneself, to waver between two options, to be "double-minded" (v. 8) rather than single-minded. Doubt anxiously looks in multiple directions rather than steadfastly watching toward God. James goes on to provide a vivid picture of the one who doubts, likening that person to a wave or the surf of the sea, "driven by the wind" (anemizomeno) and "tossed" (rhipizomeno). Both of these participles are present-passive, indicating that the doubter is continuously tossed about, bobbing about, as Vlachos images, like a cork in a stormy ocean (27). This image conveys restlessness, a person acted upon by other forces, ever in motion but without purpose. As such, the picture is virtually the opposite of the solidity, steadfastness and resolute endurance portrayed in verse 4.


For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord

In these verses James continues, intensifies and extends his comments in verse 6 about the person who doubts. Not only are they driven and tossed like the surf of the sea, but that person (ho anthropos ekeinos;that is, the one who doubts) must not expect (oiestho) that they shall receive anything from the Lord, for they are a "double-minded" person (anēr dipsychos), and unstable (akatastatos) in all their ways (en pasais tais hodois autou).

First, verse 7 comes as a great shock, especially after the portrait of God’s generosity in verse 5, which explicitly notes that God does not reproach his petitioners. Evidently, God does not reproach them for their lack of wisdom. Active doubting, however, seems to be another matter entirely. Is there a tension in the text here? God gives single-mindedly—but not to the doubter! God reproaches not—except for the doubter! Or is it the case that God is ever the generous giving God but our doubt so destablises us that we cannot watch for God’s giving because we are ever looking elsewhere; that we cannot receive God’s giving because we are ever turning elsewhere. Indeed, the doubting person must not expect to receive anything from God. Not only is their prayer for wisdom not going to bear fruit, but divine generosity is frustrated in their case.

James’ teaching on the relationship between faith and prayer echoes Jesus’ teaching on the same subject. The generosity of God and the assurance of answered prayer in verse 5 echoes Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:7-11. But Jesus also warned his disciples concerning the problem of doubt:

Matthew 21:21-22     
Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and case into the sea,’ it will happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.

In this text, as in James, faith is set in contrast to the problem of doubt and made a condition for answered prayer. Without this faith, says James, do not even think that your prayer will be answered.


being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

James goes further, however, moving beyond the dynamics of prayer to the character of the person, from spirituality to ethics. The doubting person is double-minded, literally, two-souled, in contrast to God who is haplos (v. 5), generous and single-minded. It is possible that James has coined the word he uses here (and in 4:8)—dipsychos—for this is the first occurrence of the word in extant ancient Greek.  

The way in which James has constructed his brief instruction on prayer suggests that he sees a correspondence between God and true human and spiritual maturity. As God is single-minded in his generosity, so those who approach him are to be single-minded in faith. In response to God’s kind and active benevolence, the person of faith hopes, waits, watches, endures, rests, expects, and depends upon God, answering God’s faithfulness with their own responsive faithfulness in return.

The contrast could hardly be starker. The person who doubts anxiously scurries about seeking means to establish their own right and opportunity rather than waiting watchfully for God’s activity and resting in God’s provision. Doubt is independence and self-reliance rather than dependent reliance on God. In place of patient and resolute endurance, the person who doubts is impatient and unstable. James especially identifies this characteristic in the final clause, identifying the doubter as "unstable in all their ways." The whole tenor of the person’s life and conduct is "thrown into doubt." Their doubt toward God is indicative of a much deeper and more pervasive flaw in their character: their instability is not simply with respect to their prayer for wisdom, but is also evident with respect to their conduct under trial, their relationships, and their conduct within the community. 


Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up

At first glance these verses appear to mark an abrupt change of theme and help support the idea that James is a collection of unrelated homiletical materials pieced together to form a letter representing the central themes of James’ teaching. It is possible, however, to read these verses as part of James’ overall theme in the first part of this chapter. First, verse twelve will return to the theme of the blessedness of those who endure under trial, suggesting that all the material from at least verse two through to verse twelve belongs together. Second, the opening word of verse nine (kauchastho) is another third person singular imperative, extending the string of imperatives James has used in his opening section. Further, the word means to boast or to glory in which is not too far removed in concept if not language, from the opening thought of verse two where James exhorts his hearers to ‘count it all joy.’ In Psalm 149:5 (LXX) the word is set in parallel with joy: "Let the godly ones exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their beds." Finally, a number of commentators understand these verses as an application of the opening section, identifying a particular trial, and indeed likely the major form of trial, being experienced by James’ community. The theme of wealth and riches, and the temptations associated with them recurs throughout the letter. The second chapter especially, indicates that this is a present trial and temptation for the community. Together, these contextual clues suggest that these verses should be understood as a continuation of the primary theme in this first chapter. That is, the community is to rejoice in the midst of their ongoing trials, enduring them steadfastly with faith, hope, and prayer for wisdom, and especially with reference to the vexed issue of economic difficulty, privation and temptation.

James turns his attention first to the lowly (ho adelphos ho tapeinos), the reference to ho adelphos indicating that he refers not to the lowly in general, but to those in the community of God’s people. Tapeinos means humble or lowly, but in this context, especially given the contrast with ho plousios in verse ten, is to be interpreted in socio-economic terms rather than with respect to attitude or demeanour. The word is often used in this sense in the Old Testament, and often in contexts in which the Lord is near to those who are tapeinos, to hear their prayer and to judge in their favour (e.g. Psa. 10:18; 18:27; 34:18; 102:17; Isa. 11:4). In 4:6 James will cite Proverbs 3:34 which declares that God gives grace to the tapeinos. Such favour is also in view in 2:5, where God has chosen the poor (ptochos) to be the heirs of his kingdom. James, therefore, exhorts the person in ‘humble circumstances’ (NASB; NIV) to glory in their high position (NASB; en to hypsei autou) because (reading en in a causative sense) they have been ‘raised up.’

Everything depends on the reality of this exaltation. Already they are the recipients of God’s grace and the special objects of God’s favour. Although not rich in this world they are rich in faith (2:5) and as such are heirs of the eternal kingdom. This, too, is divine wisdom, as James brings an eschatological worldview to bear on the circumstances of his readers. Only on the basis of divine grace and promise may the poor rejoice. From an earthly perspective they have no reason to boast. Just as joy in the midst of suffering is counter-intuitive, so too is boasting in the midst of poverty and affliction. But in the light of God’s present favour and eschatological promise, they may indeed boast for they have been made brothers and sisters in the very family of God. 


and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 

It is clear in this verse that James intends a contrast with verse nine. There he instructed the lowly to exult in their exaltation, while now he turns his attention to the rich (ho plousios) and speaks of their being brought low (tapeinosei). Ho plousios means to be materially wealthy and is thus set in contrast to those belonging to the lower socio-economic strata addressed in verse nine. Whereas the lowly (ho tapeinos) are now exalted, the exalted (in the material sense) are now ‘brought low,’ the NRSV translation making the connection and contrast with verse nine explicit. Indeed the two verses demand to be read as a couplet with the syntax of verse nine governing the sense of verse ten. James’ command to the lowly in verse nine (kauchastho) applies also to the rich in verse ten, the single instruction to boast or to glory being addressed to both groups.

It is also likely that the ho adelphos (‘brother,’ translated as ‘believer’ in the NRSV) from verse nine should be carried forward to verse ten. This is a more controversial claim, with a number of commentators arguing that ho plousios in James should be understood as referring to the ungodly and unbelieving rich who are described and decried in 2:6-7 and 5:1-6. Davids, for example, acknowledges that the syntax could refer to a rich believer, but argues that James would hardly consider such a rich person to be ‘truly Christian’ (77). In this case the exhortation is to the rich to really embrace the humiliation of identification with the poor Christian community so that they may truly have something to boast about! So, too, Scot McKnight views the rich here as the enemies of Christ and the Christian community, and so interprets James’ language as rich prophetic irony: the boasting and humiliation of the rich will soon be turned to humiliation (98-100). The NRSV supports this interpretation by inserting ‘the rich’ a second time into the verse. Despite these arguments, it is preferable to follow the natural sense of the syntax and to understand James as referring to a believer who is also rich. This wealthy Christian is to boast, not in his or her riches—McKnight is almost certainly correct to suggest that Jeremiah 9:23-24 lies in the background of James’ thought here—but in their humiliation (NASB), because (hoti), says James, ‘like the flower of the grass’ (hos anthos chortou) or perhaps better, a ‘flower of the field,’ or a ‘wildflower’ (NIV), he or she ‘shall pass away’ (pareleusetai).

A particular temptation for the rich is to rely on their wealth, perhaps even coming to believe that their wealth shields them from the trials that afflict the rest of humanity. "A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall in his own imagination" (Proverbs 18:11; cf. 10:15). This illusion is strengthened by the fact that wealth does to some degree function in this way. A large bank balance does shelter its owner from many common trials, just as a large estate filled with assets and enviable treasures may tempt its owner to believe in their invincibility, or to boast of their accomplishments. But James adopts a common image from the Palestinian countryside to depict the fate of all humanity—including the rich.

As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, and its place acknowledges it no longer. But the lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him (Psalm 103:15-17).

A voice says, "Call out!" Then he answered, "What shall I call out?"            
"All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever" (Isaiah 40:6-8).

James calls the rich to recognise their mortality in common with all others. They, too, ‘shall pass away,’ all their wealth and earthly glory notwithstanding. While their wealth may prove a shield in some affairs, ultimately the only lasting treasure is the fear of the Lord arising from his Word. As a believer they have embraced his Word. James now exhorts them to embrace the humiliation of association with the Christian community, of identification with the scandalous message of Jesus, for this is the true basis of glorying as Paul also insisted: "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:31).


For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes.
It is the same with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.

Verse eleven extends the natural image James uses, and also sharpens his warning, generalising the fate which awaits the rich and thereby intensifying his warning to the wealthy believer in particular.

The fate of the wildflowers in the field was proverbial, with Jesus also using this image in his teaching (Matthew 6:28-30). Here today and gone tomorrow, the image speaks of the fragility and transience of life (Zerwick & Grosvenor, 691). Although James has a different purpose to that of Jesus, the image is similar. In the morning the flowers of the field spring up and flourish and yet by evening, they have fallen under the blistering assault of the sun and its heat (cf. Psalm 90:5-6). The word translated ‘heat’ in the NRSV (kausoni) literally means scorching wind (NASB) and may have Jonah 4:8 in the background, where God appointed with the sun a ‘scorching east wind’ to assail Jonah so that he despaired of life.

Vlachos makes the helpful observation that the four aorist verbs in this verse are all linked with kai (and), which provides a rhythmic pulse: aneteilen ... kai exēranen ... kai ... exepesen kai ... apoleto (i.e., risen … and withers … and … falls and … perishes). He suggests that this rhythmic pulse emphasises the cause and effect relation between each of the verbs, as well as the inevitability and swiftness of the action (35). The rising sun will inevitably wither the grass so that its flower falls from the stem and so perishes on the ground.

The NRSV translates kai hē euprepeia tou prosopou autou apoleto as ‘and its beauty perishes.’ Literally the phrase is ‘and the beauty of its face perishes.’ The NASB translates as ‘the beauty of its appearance is destroyed,’ thus retaining the genitive, but losing the personification of the image (‘its beautiful face is destroyed’), and its resulting power when applied to the rich person (cf. 2:1).

The final phrase returns to the rich person (ho plousios) and so hints that verses 10-11 may be read as a chiasm:

A – The rich...  
B – The flower of the field...   
B1 – The flower of the field...  
A1 – The rich... 

Just as the flowers of the field will wither, fall and perish, so the rich person will ‘wither away’ (maranthēsetai) in the midst of their ‘busy life’ (en tais poreiais autou). Maraino appears only here in this form in the New Testament. Typically the word is used to refer to the withering of plants or the death of humans, usually in the sense of a gradual fading or wasting away (Vlachos, 36; Davids, 78). Poreia means journey’ or ‘way of life,’ so that some commentators link this text to 4:13-17 and suggest that the rich person is a travelling merchant who will meet their end in the midst of their business trips (so Vlachos, 36, and McKnight, 103). Davids (78) suggests this is stretching the phrase and the context too far, and prefers a more generic reference to their ‘way of life.’ In both readings, however, it is notable that the demise of the rich is described in historical rather than eschatological terms, and so again, is suggestive that the rich person is to consider their life in the light of their own mortality and its implications.

Applying James 1:9-11

Our study of this passage has concluded that it is a continuation and specific application of the theme commenced in verse two. That is, one of the major tests being experienced by James’ community concerns the issue of poverty and wealth. But this is not simply "an issue," such that it might be considered apart from the actual life setting and life experience of the community. James’ listeners are suffering, a poor and despised group in an unfamiliar land. Further, their faith in Christ has isolated them from the help they might otherwise have received from the Jewish diaspora community. Perhaps they face the temptation to curry the favour of their wealthier kinsmen; perhaps also the temptation to relinquish their faith in Jesus the Messiah and return to the synagogue. It is clear from 2:1-6 and 4:1-3 that the community is at least distracted if not riven with such attitudes and conflicts.

Further, I have argued that the syntax of vv. 9-10 requires that we read James’ exhortation to the rich as addressed to the rich believer. While the poor may rejoice in that they have been exalted, the wealthy are given arguably the more difficult task: to rejoice in their humiliation. James is using dialectical language to set forth the inherent tension the believer experiences. On the one hand the social and financial reality of each group remains unchanged with respect to their position in the broader society. On the other hand, James envisages a day when there shall occur a "great reversal" in the fortunes of the poor and the rich whereby the poor will be exalted in reality, and the rich, especially those who have acted unjustly (5:1-6), will be humbled.

James’ words echo a theme common in the Jewish tradition and which also found expression in the teaching of Jesus, especially the Lukan version of the beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26). Here Jesus looks forward to the eschatological dénouement in which the great reversal will take place. Mary, too, celebrates this hope in her prophetic song, although now the reversal is spoken of as already fulfilled:

He has done mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble (tapeinos). He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty-handed (Luke 1:51-53).

(Scot McKnight (96) rightly draws attention to the impact Mary had on the fledging Christian community through her two sons.)

Thus, James’ eschatological horizon provides the grounds for why both the poor and the rich might rejoice. The poor look forward to the coming kingdom in which all things will be made right, and the rich likewise rejoice in that they have now discovered that the coming day will not be the terror to them it might otherwise have been. Nevertheless, this exaltation and humiliation are not simply eschatological, for already the poor are exalted, and already the rich are humbled. What might this mean, since it is evident that their socio-economic status remains unchanged?

Here James’ dialectic has a new twist: a social reversal has occurred – in the church. Although future in itself, the great reversal issues in a radical transformation here and now in one’s own perception of oneself, and in the community. Here and now there is a re-ordering of expectation, of desire, of value, and of relationships on account of the new reality which has arrived in Jesus the Messiah, and which will be enacted in the eschatological judgement. Here and now the poor are welcomed as honoured, indeed, primary members of the kingdom community. Here and now the rich embrace humiliation, precisely by entering into solidarity with the poor and despised Jesus followers. The Christian community enacts on the historical level the hope to be realised in the kingdom of God. It is becoming a community in which one’s identity is founded, not on one’s socio-economic status, but on one’s status in Christ. A trans-valuation has occurred with the values and priorities of the earthly city giving way to the values and priorities of the heavenly city. James has a vision of the eschatological kingdom which exists not only in the future, but impinges upon the present and presses toward expression in the community of God’s people, here and now.


Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. (NASB)

Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. (NRSV)

These two translations indicate an immediate interpretive issue with respect to this verse: does it belong with the section dealing with the matter of trials which began in verse two, or is it the beginning of a new section incorporating verses twelve to fifteen and dealing with the matter of temptation? The key word is peirasmos which appears in verse two, here in verse twelve, four times in verse thirteen, and once in verse fourteen. The word has two basic meanings in the New Testament, corresponding to the two meanings used in this chapter of James. First, the word can denote external afflictions, especially persecution, and second, it can refer to the inner enticement to sin (Moo, 59). This range of meaning suggests that James may be using verse twelve to transition his focus from the external pressures experienced by the community, to the internal motives and attitudes which they experience precisely on account of the external trials. It is not uncommon that one’s response to external trials may itself be another trial. The two often belong together, and we err when our entire focus is turned outward as though our circumstances are our only trial, when in fact, our response to those circumstances is also a trial which we must endure and perhaps overcome. This way of viewing the text helps us find unity in the overall section from verse two through eighteen, rather than viewing the whole as a series of disconnected exhortations.

We begin by noting the resonance in this verse with what has gone before. As already noted, the key term peirasmos picks up the opening thought of verse two. The testing (dokimion) of our faith in verse three produces endurance (hypomonē). In this verse James pronounces as blessed those who endure (hypomenē, the verb form of hypomonē), for they have stood the test (dokimos). Finally, the promise that they shall receive (lampsetai) the crown of life stands in subtle contrast to the double-minded person of verse seven who must not expect to receive (lampsetai) anything from the Lord. These verbal links with the earlier passage suggest that James is reiterating and extending his earlier comments, and bringing those exhortations to their climax. Not only does endurance under trial develop good character, but it also brings the promise and hope of eschatological blessing. In light of these considerations, the NASB’s interpretation is preferred.

"Blessed is the man" (Makarios anēr hos) is almost formulaic language in Old Testament appearing six times in Psalms and twice in Proverbs (Davids, 79; cf. Psalms 1:1; 2:12; 32:1; 112:1; 119:1-2; Proverbs 8:32, 34, etc). James, then, is taking over biblical language, though his use of anēr ("man") is not required to make sense of the sentence and should not be used to limit this blessing merely to males. Thus, while the NASB provides a very literal translation, "blessed are those" or the NRSV’s "blessed is anyone" are more appropriate to convey the sense intended. The person so blessed is the one who perseveres under trial as already explained in earlier verses. Such a one, having stood the test is approved (dokimos). In verse three dokimion emphasised the process of testing, whereas here the emphasis is more on the person who has successfully endured that process and so "passed" the test (McKnight, 111). This person will receive (lampsetai) the crown of life, the future tense indicating that the promised blessing still lies in the future, especially perhaps for James’ suffering community.

What, precisely, is "the crown of life" (ton stephanon tēs zoēs)? Virtually all commentators read this phrase as epexegetical, that is, "the crown which is life." This is another way of saying that those who persevere will receive God’s promise of salvation which is eternal life. The same phrase is found in Revelation 2:9-10 and its use there, in the ascended Christ’s message to the suffering church of Smyrna, may have relevance for interpreting our text:

I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life (ton stephanon tēs zoēs).

This text has similar characteristics to James 1: the apocalyptic context of trials by which the community is tested. It is not insignificant that James’ community may well be persecuted by other (wealthier?) Jews. Nevertheless the trials are limited in duration, and over against the threat of death is the promised "crown of life." In Revelation chapter four, the elders clothed in white garments (a picture of the church?) are crowned with golden crowns which they cast in worship before throne (Revelation 4:4, 10). As God’s people endure the testing of their faith even to the point of death, they will be crowned as victors, as those who have triumphed over the opposition. The imagery of the crown is most commonly used of the wreath awarded to victorious athletes in the games (Davids, 80; cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25 where "wreath" translates stephanon). A similar sense is seen in Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:7-8:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

Paul’s crown of righteousness is the equivalent of James and John’s crown of life, and Peter’s "unfading crown of glory" (1 Peter 5:4). Each in slightly different ways refers to the eschatological blessing and recognition awaiting those who faithfully endure. The whole life of the believer will be "crowned" as it were, by their entering into the life "promised" (epēggeilato) to those who love him (tois agaposin auton). They shall receive the honour and acknowledgement of those in God’s royal presence, his children, and heirs of the kingdom.

The subject of the promise is identified in both translations above as "the Lord," the italics in the NASB indicating that these words have been supplied by the translators. A better translation would supply "God" as the subject of the promise and so bring this verse into harmony with James 2:5 where an identical construction is used ("promised to those who love him"), and where the subject of the sentence is explicitly identified as God. There is no explicit promise in the Old Testament that James is here citing, though a number of texts do promise God’s steadfast love to those who love him (see, for example, Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 7:9; Psalm 145:20). James generalises the broad sweep of Scripture in which those who love God and therefore stand firm in times of trial will be those who receive his blessing.

Reflection on James 1:12

As we noted in our previous discussion, this verse trades on the concept of God’s promise and its future fulfilment. Christian hope rests on the reality of this promise, and if it be anything less than a sure and steadfast divine commitment, Christian hope, endurance and faithfulness loses its sure foundation. In the face of trials and temptations, Christians cling to their hope on the basis of their trust in the divine promise. The concept of God’s promise is common in the New Testament. The author of Hebrews exhorts his audience to faithful endurance on the basis of God’s promise (6:10-15; 8:6; 10:23; 11:11). In Galatians 3 Paul refers to God’s promise nine times and traces it to the promise given to Abraham. In 2 Corinthians 1:20 Paul assures his readers that all the promises of God find their Yes in Jesus Christ. Behind this emphasis on the divine promise stands a firm conviction in the utter faithfulness of God who will fulfil the promises he has made. In one sense the fulfilment of the promise is wholly dependent upon this faithfulness, and so in hope and trust, we cling to the promise and wait expectantly for God’s act of fulfilment. In another sense, however, the promise is conditional, and it is this aspect that we find developed in James.

One of the aspects of James’ theology that becomes apparent in this verse is a sense of conditionality with respect to the believer’s reception of the divine promise. James does not so much pronounce the blessing as identify what the blessing is (the crown of life) and stipulate the grounds on which it is received (standing firm in trials, loving God). Although James does not use the language of "reward" in this text, the idea is present. Those who fulfil the conditions stipulated will receive the promised blessing. Some might find the idea of "reward" too close to the concept of merit, and so antithetical to genuine Christian faith and spirituality. Luther famously referred to James as less than apostolic, and to his letter as "an epistle of straw" as compared to those other New Testament works which set forth Christ and salvation more clearly (Luther’s Works, 35:362; cf. 395-397). Yet the New Testament often calls believers to consider the blessing which awaits them, and so be encouraged in faithful endurance.

For James, faith and salvation are not the fruit of a simple profession of faith which does not come to expression in the lived experience of the believer. Genuine faith is active and enduring. Faith, in this context at least, consists in faithfulness, and there is no possibility of a separation between faith and praxis, the two belonging together as two aspects of the one reality. This connection between fidelity and blessing was typical of early Christian thinking, according to Scot McKnight, who notes that "James 1:12 is more like Jesus and 2 John and Revelation than like Paul" (111), although Paul also can speak of "faith which works through love" (Galatians 5:6), and of the "work of faith" (1 Thessalonians 1:3). Nevertheless, Paul’s more consistent theme is to speak of faith as distinct from works (Romans 3:21-31), or even over against works (cf. Galatians 3:7-14). As a result, some commentators, pastors and Christians seek ways to bring James’ message into alignment with that of Paul. It is an error, however, to assimilate James too quickly to Paul, for such an approach limits and flattens the diverse New Testament witness. It is a far better approach to allow James’ distinctive contribution to stand in all its stern power. James and Paul sing from the same page but sound different notes, James’ harmony complementing Paul’s melody. A better musical analogy would suggest the two authors represent two songs on a single album, each distinct yet part of a larger whole, each contributing in their own voice and style to the overall project. Christian witness, spirituality and life require both voices to sound, both songs to be heard, both compositions to be accepted on their own terms. We will have occasion to discuss the relation between James and Paul at greater length in chapter two. Suffice it here to say that James’ intent is to insist upon the nature of faith as active and enduring, and to insist also that eschatological validation of one’s faith will be predicated upon the kind of life which demonstrated the genuine nature of that faith.

To say all this, however, is not to suggest that James’ spirituality is one of works undertaken in order to earn merit, achieve salvation, and so gain the promised reward. The final phrase of James’ exhortation is crucial: "which [God] has promised to those who love him." Love for God is the motivation by which we stand firm under trial, refusing to buckle in the face of pressure, stress and affliction. Love for God undergirds the enduring faith which James has portrayed so steadfastly thus far. Those who persevere under trial and stand firm against temptation do so because they love him. By shifting his emphasis to the believer’s love for God, James clearly indicates that the work of faith over the course of one’s life is an expression of this deeper inner motive. Our faithfulness springs from this love which finds its root in his initiating love for us, grounded in the promise of this ever and always generous God, and the gift of salvation by which he has brought us forth (cf. vv. 5, 18). Our faithfulness toward God is but the echo of his greater, prior and all-encompassing faithfulness toward us. But faithfulness it must be.

What does it mean to love God? In broader biblical perspective we see that love for God involves keeping his commandments (John 14:15). It means to keep his word in our hearts (Deuteronomy 6:4-6). In this context, however, it might best be understood in terms of loyalty to God and to God’s will in the face of pressure to compromise and capitulate. It means to look to God, to hope in God, to approach God in prayer, and to trust in God. It means to rejoice in God and find our boasting, joy and life in him. The Christian life is neither a cynical quest for reward nor a fearful avoidance of hell. It is not simply a stoic endurance of affliction or a herculean withstanding of temptation. It is a life of joy rather than gritted teeth, of hope rather than fear, of faith rather than despair, of generosity rather than selfishness, and supremely, of love


No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’;
for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 

With this verse James transitions from peirasmos as trials to peirasmos as temptations. In fact, many commentators identify the transition by translating the text, "Let no one say when he is tested, ‘I am being tempted by God.’" It is worth noting that James would certainly draw a distinction between God testing his people and God tempting his people. The Old Testament has many accounts of the former, from the test established in the Garden of Eden, to Abraham’s test in Genesis 22, to Israel’s tests in Exodus 16 and Deuteronomy 8, etc. It is certainly the case that one’s faith is regularly tested as we noted in our comments on verses 2-4. It is certainly the case that God will at times test particular individuals, either through the circumstances they face (e.g. Psalm 105:17-19) or by presenting them with a particular challenge (John 6:5-6). Nevertheless James insists that God never tempts his people. The verse begins with an imperative followed by two supporting reasons. James’ command is very simple: whenever one is tempted one must not blame God for it as its source or origin.

Why might someone assign the source of our temptations to God? Perhaps they have a theological perspective in which God is the ultimate cause of all things, even if he uses secondary agents. If we believe God is the source of our trials and temptations, we may be less likely to resist them, and more likely to be double-minded with respect to prayer. Some people may indulge in the temptation, justifying their sinful actions by claiming it is God’s will (cf. Romans 6:1-2). James will have none of this and insists that no one assigns responsibility for temptations to God. Here, there is no place for divine omni-causality.

Instead, James grounds his imperative in a twofold reflection on God’s character. First, God cannot be tempted with evil (ho gar theos apeirastos estin kakon). The key word, apeirastos is found only here in the New Testament, and may have been coined by James (Vlachos, 43). Several translations have been suggested. It may mean simply that God is not temptable, that his supreme holiness denies any place whatsoever to evil; or it may mean that God is inexperienced and therefore "untouched" (NEB) with respect to evil; or, as Davids (82-83) has suggested recalling the command of Deuteronomy 6:16, God ought not to be tempted by evil people. In the immediate context here, the first possibility is usually chosen by translators and commentators. The second possible meaning requires changing apeirastos to the more commonly used aperatos, while Davids’ suggestion does not do justice to the balanced movement of thought in the verse whereby James’ second rationale ("and he himself tempts no one"—peirazei de autos oudena) issues from the first: God cannot be tempted, and he does not tempt any. Thus God’s supreme holiness precludes his being tempted; evil has no foothold or place in God. Because this is true, neither does his holiness entice others towards evil for this would be utterly alien to his holy nature. Further, we see once more that for James, God is wholly and single-mindedly good (cf. v. 17). God remains the gracious and generous God whose will is to bless his people.


But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 

In verse thirteen James insists that God cannot be tempted with evil, neither does he tempt anyone else. Whence temptations, then, if not from God?  Perhaps temptations issue from a more malign source, from the devil. I have argued earlier (see comments on verse 3) that some tests faced by Christians may have a satanic origin. But James also refuses this option, and instead, lays responsibility for temptations squarely on each one of us. No one is tempted by God; each one (hekastos) is tempted (peirazetai) by one’s own desire (hypo tēs idias epithymias). Here the shift from external trials to internal temptations is clearly evident. The fault and so the cause, lie within. Desire in and of itself is not evil. Paul desired to "depart and be with Christ" (Philippians 1:23). In Galatians 5:17 he suggests that the Spirit has desires which are contrary to those of the flesh. Nevertheless the usual sense of the word in the New Testament—including in this passage—is negative and refers to those desires which are against God’s will; it is commonly translated as lust.

James goes further: he personifies this lust, making it the agent of the two participles which follow so that the person is tempted as they are "lured away" (exelkomenos) and "enticed" (deleazomenos) by their own desire. The two participles, drawn from the activities of fishing and hunting, describe the way in which one is tempted. The object of one’s desire becomes the attractive bait that lures them away from their love towards God. They are enticed away from obedience to disobedience. As Vlachos has memorably put it, they are hooked by their own bait (42).

It is not difficult, once again, to see double-mindedness at play in James’ exhortation here (cf. 4:8). But James is arguing something deeper. He emphasises that "each person" is tempted by "their own" desire. Perhaps it is not too much to suggest that James sees our sins and desires as individual. Although in some respects all our temptations are quite common and even banal, yet there is a personal twist to each one. More recently, Michael Mangis suggested that we have "signature sins," individual and specific patterns of sin in our life that affect our thoughts, actions and relationships (Signature Sins: Taming our Wayward Hearts.IVP, 2008). We may find ourselves continually tempted by anger, for example, but the ways in which we express it, and the triggers that catalyse it are very personal and unique.

James’ practical analysis of the dynamic of sin presupposes an anthropology which was common in Judaism. According to Scot McKnight (118-119), Jewish thought, drawing on Genesis 6:5, suggested that each human heart harboured two conflicting powers: the yetzer hara‘ (an evil inclination or desire) and the yetzer hatov (a good inclination or desire). Sin finds its origin not in the will, but at the level of desire. In chapter 4:1-2 James will reiterate this point: "What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and you cannot obtain, so you fight and wage war..."

Humans are desiring creatures; dependent, finite, longing creatures, created for God and made in order to love him. Under the impulse of sin and the conditions of the fall, however, our desires have been corrupted and misdirected. Instead of loving God and others, we turn our love inwards to love ourselves. Instead of seeking and finding our delight and our life in God, we turn to created things hoping there to find life, peace and joy, and so serve the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). Luther defined humanity’s predicament as homo incurvatus in se—humanity turned in on itself. In this, ironically, he is at one with James. 


then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin,
and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 

In verses 13-14 James has located the genesis of sin strictly with the individual rather than with God, the devil or some other external agency: "Each person is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it." For the ancient Hebrews, the yetzer hara‘ (an evil inclination or desire) was an inherent impulse and ever-present feature of the human personality, drawing the person towards evil activity. In this verse James continues his practical account of the dynamics of sin. "Then" (eita), says James, indicating a progression and a result, when the enticement or lure meets misdirected desire, a conception occurs—sin (hamartian) has its origin. It may, following the analogy, be a long gestation, secret and hidden before coming to light. Or it may spring swiftly to life, but come to birth it will.

James’ use of the dramatic metaphor of conception (syllabousa) and birth (tiktei) has antecedents in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Psalm 7:14 reads, "Behold, he travails with wickedness, and he conceives mischief and brings forth falsehood." What makes this text interesting is that the imagery naturally associated with a woman is applied to a male. This is important when considering James’ use of the metaphor, for a number of commentators suggest that James has in mind the image of the loose woman of Proverbs 5-9 (e.g. Davids, 84; Moo, 74; Vlachos, 45), thus portraying sin as a seductress. This link is seen as particularly appropriate given the grammatical feminine of epithymia ("desire"). Care must be taken, however, to avoid the association of the feminine with evil and sin, a danger with a long pedigree in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Sin may be portrayed in terms of a hunter (v. 14) or a seductress (v. 15), but in itself is neither male nor female, and attaches itself to all people equally, irrespective of their gender. Further, it is an arguable proposition that male sinfulness has wrought far more misery in the world and in history than female sinfulness.

Sin, however, is not the end of the story for James continues, "and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death" (hē de hamartia apotelestheisa apokyei thanaton). The coupling of sin and death goes all the way back to Eden (e.g. Genesis 2:17), finds expression in the prophets (e.g. Ezekiel 18:4), and the wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs 1:8-19; 5:22-23). Jesus, too, makes the link between sin and death (e.g. Luke 13:2-5; John 8:24), and it is common in Paul’s theology (e.g. Romans 5:12-14; 6:23; Ephesians 2:1). For James, too, sin leads inevitably to death. James again uses the imagery of human birth and development to portray this link. In Davids’ memorable phrase (85), "…sin is not the end. The child grows up." Apotelestheisa has the sense of coming to completion or reaching its goal (cf. Luke 13:32), and so in this context is appropriately translated as "fully grown."

The idea that sin can "grow up" and reach maturity is intriguing and highlights the insidious nature of sin in the human life. Sin is not content until it reigns over the entirety of a life bringing forth death (Romans 5:21). In Genesis 4:7 it is pictured as a wild beast lying in wait to devour, and which must be mastered. So, too, James personifies sin. Here, sin develops, and having reached reproductive maturity, "gives birth to death." The language is paradoxical and startling for one normally associates birth with new life. Indeed, when birth results in death it is an occasion for great grief and mourning. Obviously the language is metaphorical and indicates that sin produces or brings forth death. Death, in Scripture, can bear multiple senses, including "spiritual" death, a separation from God and his purposes while still alive (e.g. Ephesians 2:1) and physical death. The death that sin brings is first spiritual and relational and later physical. Davids rightly notes, however, that James’ chain of desire-sin-death in verses 14-15 forms a stark contrast with his chain in verse 12 of testing-endurance-life (85). There the crown of life is understood in eschatological terms and so it seems likely that the kind of death James has in mind is eschatological—death in the ultimate sense of eternal separation from God, life and blessedness. 


Do not be deceived, my beloved. 

This brief verse of just five words is not a rhetorical pause, as it were, while James collects his thoughts before going on, having little or no connection with what has preceded it. Most commentators agree that it is a hinge verse reaching back to warn the reader concerning the error just discussed in verses 13-15, and opening the discussion which corrects that error in verses 17-18. As such, the verse holds the two paragraphs of this section together.

"Do not be deceived" (mē planasthe), warns James. This phrase occurs in several places in the New Testament, usually in contexts where there writer is warning his readers concerning serious errors which "strike at the heart of the faith itself" (Davids, 86). For example, Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Galatians 6:7, in both cases warning the Christian community concerning the reality of divine judgement because of lifestyles which are incompatible with life in the kingdom of God. The phrase has a similar sense here: those who claim they are tempted by God (v. 13) are deceived; make no mistake, says James, sinful life arises from human lust and leads ultimately to death. This is neither God’s will nor God’s work. That James refers to his readers as "my beloved [brothers]" (adelphoi mou agapētoi)—the NRSV correctly omits "brothers" given adelphoi is inclusive of both genders—shows, however, that he does not consider that they have in fact fallen from their faith. They are still in the family, so to speak. But as a concerned and diligent pastor, he admonishes and warns them concerning the seriousness of the error that some, apparently, have fallen into.

Love for the congregation is necessary for effective pastoral ministry, especially when exhortation and admonition are required. That James uses the term for siblings also indicates that he addresses them not in the mode of a parental authority over them, but as one of them and alongside them. He wears his pastoral authority confidently but lightly.


Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 

Certainly James does not want his congregation to misunderstand the serious ramifications of sin which lead to death. Nevertheless, his warning in verse 16 is perhaps more directed to the positive truth which now comes into view in this verse: he especially does not want them to be deceived about the constant, consistent and unchanging goodness of God. We have already noted that some among his listeners have been deceived about God’s goodness, including assigning evil intention and temptation to God. In this verse James counters this view with a firm declaration that God is always and only good, and that God never changes. Therefore God is not the one who tempts them, nor does God send evil upon his people. Rather, God is the source of every good gift, the giver of "perfect" gifts, single-mindedly good and generous (v. 5).

The opening phrase of the verse is thought by many commentators to be an ancient proverb because it forms a hexameter, a series of words whose syllables form six rhythmic sections (Vlachos, 47). Davids suggests that the original saying could have been something like "every gift is good and every present perfect" (86). Applied in this context, it affirms the divine goodness in simple and homely terms.

The NRSV translates the phrase as "every generous act of giving (pasa dosis agathē), with every perfect gift" (kai pan dorēma teleion; cf. NASB, Holman, and others). While it is correct that dosis may be translated in terms of an act, it is more likely that James is using the two terms dosis and dorēma as synonyms and as such does not intend any distinction of meaning between them. McKnight (124) also suggests that given the poetic nature of the phrase, neither should we seek to draw distinction between "good" (agathē) and "perfect" (teleion); in the whole phrase James has one thought and one intent, which is to declare the goodness of God.

These good and perfect gifts are from above (anothen estin), "coming down" (katabainon) from the "Father of lights" (apo tou patros tov photov). The phrase indicates the heavenly origin of these gifts, and the present tense suggests that such gifts are continually descending from above. What are these gifts which continually descend from above? James does not say. However, he has already spoken of God giving wisdom to those who ask in faith (v. 5). In chapter three he will speak of the wisdom which is "from above" (3:15, 17). We might readily, therefore, consider wisdom as one of the gifts that God gives. But we need not limit God to this gift; every good gift and every perfect gift is from above. Not only the blessing of wisdom, but salvation, healing and forgiveness (5:15), answers to prayer (5:16-18), eschatological redemption and reward (1:4, 12)—all these and more besides are the generous gifts that the Father of lights gives to his children.

While the overall thrust of the verse is quite simple and clear, the details are less so. The term "Father of lights" appears only here in Scripture, and probably intends to designate God as the creator ("Father") of the heavenly lights—the sun, moon and stars, recalling Genesis 1:3, 14-18. That God is associated with light rather than darkness adds to the emphasis that he is not the source of temptation.  The final phrase adds to our picture of God’s character by insisting that with respect to God there is "no variation" (par’ ho ouk eni parallagē) "or shadow due to change" (ē tropēs aposkiasma). Not only is God good, he never changes; that is, God is only and always good. Although none of the terms used here are technical astronomical terms, parallagē and tropēs are commonly used in astronomical contexts. This adds support to the idea that "Father of lights" refers to God the creator of the heavenly bodies (Moo, 76).

How the phrase is to be interpreted, however, is less clear. James could be simply likening God’s goodness to the regular and dependable movements of the heavenly bodies, or he could be saying that God is unlike the heavenly bodies, for they are ever shifting in their course, subject to change and shadows during the lunar cycle or eclipses. The final phrase of the verse, "shadow due to change" suggests that the latter interpretation is best. Thus God never changes nor is he changed. Does he therefore send tests and temptations? No, he sends that which is good, and, since he is unchanging, he could never send evil (Davids, 88). 

Several theological questions gather around this verse. First, does this verse speak of the common grace which is the divine goodness which is given to all to all and sundry whether they believe in God or not? Because the name "Father of lights" has a creational and thus universal sense, it is possible to see in this verse a reference to the universal goodness of God. After all, the Lord is "good to all" (Psalm 145:8). God is unchanging and unremittingly benevolent, causing his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and his rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45), satisfying our hearts with food and gladness (Acts 14:17). Such a reading, however, is not natural to the context. James is addressing his "beloved brothers and sisters" who have been "brought forth" by God’s will through the word of truth (v. 18). He gives generously to those who ask in faith nothing doubting (vv. 5-8). Thus, although this verse might it be used to support the idea of common grace taught explicitly elsewhere, here it is better to think of it as an exhortation to believers to trust God’s goodness rather than assign temptation to him.

The second question concerns God’s immutability. According to James, in God there is "no variation" or "shadow of turning." Clearly James holds the Old Testament tradition that God does not change (see, for example, Malachi 3:6; Numbers 23:19). But in what sense does God not change? The question is important because of the way the concept of God’s immutability, his changelessness, has been understood in the Christian tradition. For many, God’s immutability is understood in absolute terms, as though God is absolutely unchanging in his being and essence. Behind this idea lies the concept of the divine perfection: if God is absolutely perfect he could never be subject to change, for any change would be for the better (in which case he was not actually perfect before), or for the worse (in which case he is no longer perfect). This philosophical concept of absolute divine immutability, however, renders God unable to love or respond emotionally to his creation. God becomes aloof, sitting in transcendent splendour above the created order and untouched and unmoved by its pain, need and suffering. Such a picture of God, however, is far removed from the biblical portrait of God whose heart was broken over humanity’s fall into sin (Genesis 6:5-6), and who is portrayed by Jesus as running to greet his wayward child who now returns (Luke 15:20).

In what way, then, is God "without variation" or "shadow of turning"? It is unlikely that James was thinking in metaphysical terms in the sense that God is ontologically incapable of any change. The Old Testament references indicate that God is unchanging with respect to his character and intention—ideas which fit the context of this verse well. God is unchanging in his goodness and in his will to bless. God is also unchanging in his righteousness and holiness. As such God stands opposed to evil in all its forms and will not countenance evil in the lives of his people. How, then, could God tempt his people toward evil? For James, such a view is unthinkable in light of the unwavering goodness of God.


In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth,
so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

The first question to be asked of this verse concerns whether James is writing with respect to the creational or redemptive work of God. If verse 17 is understood in a creational sense, it is possible to read this verse in the same way. Humanity, generally, has been created in the divine image by God’s word of command to be the first amongst God’s creatures. In our comment on the previous verse, however, we concluded that although the text could be read in a creational sense, it is better to understand it in terms of an exhortation to the believing community. So here, James uses language that elsewhere in the New Testament refers to God’s salvific work. The "word of truth" refers to the message of the gospel (Ephesians 1:13; Colossians 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:15; cf. 2 Corinthians 6:7), which, more broadly, is understood as the instrument by which men and women are brought to faith and so to salvation (cf. Romans 10:17; 1 Peter 1:23-25). The emphasis on divine sovereignty in this verse echoes Paul’s similar emphasis in Ephesians 1. The broader context of verses 13-18 suggests that James is piling up reasons for why his hearers should not blame God for the trials they experience. God’s will and activity toward us has ever been gracious and kind. God does not tempt us with evil, not only because his goodness is incapable of evil, but because such an act would also be counter to his ultimate purpose, which is to establish his people as the paradigm of his intent for the whole creation. God does not will evil, sin and death, but life.

"In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth" (βoulētheis apekyēsen hēmas logo alētheias). βoulētheis is an aorist participle meaning "by an act of will, deliberately" (Zerwick-Grosvenor, 692). The use of the aorist participle with the verb indicates that God’s action was the outworking of his logically prior determination. The implied subject of the verb (apekyēsen) is the "Father of lights" from verse 17. Salvation, a premier example of a "good and perfect gift," has its ground in the divine purpose and intent. If James’ messianic community has experienced salvation, it is because God has purposed it; the whole emphasis is on God’s purpose and God’s activity, and so on grace. As such, this verse could have been written by Paul, and undermines the idea that James has a soteriology of works rather than grace.

The verb itself is daring, for apekyeo is properly applied to a female, and literally means to give birth (from kyo, to be pregnant). The image is applied metaphorically to God—the "Father of lights" gives birth!—and is almost certainly deliberately used by James here in contrast to its previous use in verse 15. Whereas human desire leads to sin which gives birth to death, God’s will gives birth to new life and new creation (see McKnight, 129). The image of salvation as new birth is found elsewhere in the New Testament in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, in John 1:13; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, and in 1 Peter 1:23. Although it is common to think of being born again in personal and therefore individual terms, McKnight (130) argues that the "us" (hēmas) in this text, refers to the messianic community which God has "delivered" into the world. McKnight’s emphasis is a helpful corrective, and a reminder that while salvation is personal, it is neither private nor simply individual, but has a corporate intention and public aspect. Indeed, McKnight goes on to say that,

The "new birth" of James is both intensely personal and structurally ecclesial: God’s intent is to restore individuals in the context of a community that has a missional focus on the rest of the world (131).

This intent comes more fully into view in the final phrase of the verse, "that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures" (eis to einai hēmas aparchēn tina ton autou ktismaton). With this phrase, the whole saving purpose of God comes into view, and God’s salvific work is identified as the fulfilment of his creational activity. Because God has his eye on the whole of creation, he has brought forth the community of God’s people. They are the "first" of the harvest, and the promise of the full harvest which is yet to come. In the Old Testament, the first fruits belonged to God, whether the firstborn in a family, the first animal of the herd, the first grain of the field (see, e.g., Exodus 13:1-2; 22:29-30), and had to be offered to God or otherwise redeemed. As the first fruits of his creation Christians are God’s treasured possession, the first harvest of his intention that the whole creation shall be renewed and redeemed. God is giving birth to a new creation and believers, having been brought forth by the gospel, are the first fruits of this renewed world. It should be noted that the New Testament uses the idea of regeneration both with respect to the salvation of individuals and of the cosmos itself (see, e.g. Titus 3:5; Matthew 19:28; cf. Acts 3:21). The Father of lights has not abandoned his creation but is leading it towards its consummation.

That God’s intent is the "restoration of all things" (Acts 3:21) does not imply universalism, especially in James, where the threat of judgement is very prominent and directed especially against the rich. Rather, and this picks up McKnight’s insistence that the messianic community has a missional focus, the redeemed community is to function as a picture of God’s intent for all humanity, and as the instrument by which God will continue his harvest. This reminds us of the call of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3, where God called Abram because he had his eye on "all the families of the world." So God has brought forth the church, not simply to be the sole recipient of his goodness and blessing, but that through the church, his every good and perfect gift might also be directed to every creature. Such a gracious God is not leading people to fall as some in the community seem to be asserting (v. 13). Rather, the good and gracious God is one who strengthens them to endure the test that God’s purposes for them and for the entirety of the creation might be realised (Davids, 90).


You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; (NRSV)

This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; (NASB)

James addresses his "brothers and sisters" for the third time in this chapter (vv. 2, 16), and as "beloved" for the second time (v. 16). It is also the second time that he refers to his hearers "knowing" something, although the word here (iste) differs from that used in verse 3. The two translations above show that the word could be translated as an indicative (NASB) indicating something that James’ hearers already know, and so referring back to the truths just enumerated in verses 16-18. Or it could be understood as an imperative as in most English translations, and thus as a command to his hearers to know this particular truth which James will now go on to declare. The usual translation is to be preferred, although the NASB has the advantage of translating the tiny particle de ("but"). It is likely that the decision to translate the particle forces the change of translation in the first phrase.

What is it James wants his hearers to know? He begins with a brief aphorism that "everyone" (pas anthropos) "must be" (esto) "quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger" (taxys eis to akousai, bradys eis to lalēsai, bradys eis orgēn). The aphorism itself plays on the metaphor of speed: quick—slow—slow. "Quick to listen" and "slow to speak" would provide a balanced and parallel saying. The addition of "slow to anger" slows the saying and hearer, emphasising James’ focus on speech and highlighting especially his main concern—angry speech, and, more to the point, human anger itself. 


for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. (NRSV)

for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. (NASB)

Thus, James’ main concern is the pithy point given in verse 20: human anger does not produce the righteousness of God (orgē gar andros dikaiosynēn theou ou katergazetai; note that this text follows the fifth edition of the UBS Greek New Testament, and so reads ou katergazetai instead of ouk ergazetai (fourth edition). See the discussion in Vlachos, 53-54). The NRSV reads "your anger does not produce God’s righteousness" suggesting that at least some members of the community itself are angry. Although this is possible, it obscures the more specific thrust of the verse provided by the contrast between human anger and God’s righteousness. Further, katergazetai here, recalls its earlier use in verse 3, where the trial of our faith "produces" (katergazetai) endurance. If in the midst of trial, James’ hearers resort to anger instead of practising endurance, the result will not be the attainment of divine righteousness; they will not be "perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (verse 4). The phrase "God’s righteousness" (dikaiosyne theou) here thus carries an ethical rather than salvific sense. James is not saying that one’s anger does not bring a person into a saving relation with God, but that human anger does not bear the kind of righteous fruit that God desires or approves. James is concerned here, therefore, not with one’s standing before God, but with practical righteousness, the kind of life lived in accordance with that which is right and good in God’s sight.

On first glance these verses appear to be a stand-alone aphorism intended as practical parenesis and admonition, presaging the larger treatment on human speech and the power of the tongue in chapter 3. There is no doubt that speech is a major issue in James with 29 imperatives in the letter devoted to speech ethics (Vlachos, 52). It is not surprising, therefore, that pastors and preachers read the verse like this, using homely examples such as "God has given us two ears but only one mouth, obviously intending that we should listen twice as much as we should speak!"

Nevertheless, this reading disconnects the verses from what has gone before. It is, however, possible, and I think preferable, to read verses 19-20 as part of James’ ongoing argument. In times of trial and temptation believers are to stand firm in faith, rejoicing in God and praying for wisdom. They are not to accuse or blame God for their temptations for such temptations arise from their own lusts. Therefore God’s people would do well to be slow to speak such words and make such claims (cf. verse 13 "let no one say…"). Instead, believers are to be "quick to hear"—the Word of God. That this is James’ intent becomes clear in verses 21-25 where he goes on to instruct his listeners how they should hear. The primary meaning of this brief aphorism is, therefore, a renewed call for humble submission to God in the midst of trial. That it may also have wider application as a piece of relational and moral wisdom is apparent but secondary to this primary interpretation. James will, of course, develop his instruction on believers’ use of the tongue in interpersonal relations in chapter 3, but that is not the primary content of his exhortation here. 

My treatment of verses 19-20 has argued that James’ concern is primarily spiritual, that he is issuing once more a call to humble submission before God in the midst of trials. More needs to be said, however, lest we miss James’ evident concern with the state and conduct of the community to which he is writing. Even if our anger is directed toward God, often the more immediate object of our anger are those persons whom we believe are responsible for our hardship. Behind the immediate object of our anger stands God, the ultimate object of our anger. These two objects of anger are closely related. The angry person inevitably upsets the community, introducing dispute, conflict, judgement and jealousy, all of which are contrary to the righteousness of God. The story of Cain in Genesis 4:1-8 illustrates the dual nature of anger. Cain burned with fury against God but could reach only Abel. His brother then became the immediate object of his wrath, issuing ultimately in violence and murder. In the story God warns Cain saying, "Why are you angry? … Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it."

Examination of the broader context of James indicates that perhaps within the community itself, some members were cursing others (3:9-10), that there were quarrels, fights and disputes among them (4:1), with some speaking evil of and judging others (4:11-12). McKnight (135-139) may be correct in his assertion that this is the primary issue at stake in the community, with some of the poorer and unjustly treated members of the community seeking to bring about justice for their own cause by striking out in anger against the rich who oppress them. For McKnight, this strife consisted at the very least in verbal assaults, but very possibly also led to physical violence between some of the members. That it may also have led to murder in the community (137-138), is to take James 4:2 too literally.

Many texts in the Hebrew wisdom tradition draw attention to the need for great carefulness with respect to speech (see, for example, Proverbs 12:13-14a, 17-19; 13:3; 18:21; cf. especially Sirach 5:11: "Be quick to hear but deliberate in answering"). The same is true with respect to anger (Proverbs 14:29; 16:32; 19:11; 22:24-25; Ecclesiastes 7:9). Some texts draw the two themes together:

Proverbs 15:1           
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Thus James’ admonition has ample precedent in the Old Testament. It is also the case that he would have learned the same lesson from Jesus. For example, Jesus’ teaching on the righteousness which surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees clearly warns his followers concerning the very real dangers of angry speech (Matthew 5:20-26). Human anger does not produce the righteous kind of character, behaviour or community that God desires. Some of James’ community may indeed be crying out for justice against those who mistreat them, but the way of anger, insult and violence will not establish divine righteousness (cf. James 3:18).


Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness,
and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

After my conversion, the church I attended used the King James Version of the Bible and this became one of my favourite verses. The quaint terminology, rhythmic cadence, and almost absurd weightiness of the language made it memorable: “Wherefore, lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls." It still makes me smile. Nonetheless, the language needs updating, and even the NRSV might be clearer; the NIV reads simply, “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent…"

The commentators are divided on whether this verse better belongs with verses 19-20 (e.g. Davids and McKnight) or with verses 22-25 (e.g. Moo and Vlachos). This may indicate that it is better not to divide the passage here, but to consider verses 19-27 as one overarching unit with several subsections. James’ use of “my (beloved) brothers and sisters" in verses 19 and 2:1 may be the best marker of what he intended, given he often uses this phrase to introduce a new section (cf. 1:2, 16, 19; 2:1, 2:14, 3:1, 3:10b(?), etc). There are certainly connections both with the previous section, and with that to come. The “implanted word" (logos) recalls the “word of truth" in verse 18, as well as foreshadowing the instruction in verse 22 to be “doers of the word." The exhortation to “receive with meekness" may echo the command to be “quick to hear" in verse 19, and several commentators suggest that the evil (kakias) spoken of in this verse is best understood in terms of malice, and so parallel to the anger of verses 19-20 (see, for example, Vlachos, 56; McKnight, 142).

James’ first instruction is not a grammatical imperative although it functions like one. “Therefore, rid yourselves" (dio apothemenoi) does suggest that this instruction is predicated upon what has come earlier, probably in verses 19-20, but also reaching back to verse 18. The participle apothemenoi literally means to “put away" or “lay aside," and is often used in the sense of removing one’s clothing (cf. Acts 7:58). The image is common in New Testament exhortations to lay aside pre-Christian patterns of behaviour. Thus, in Romans 13:12 Paul calls on the church to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light." This pattern of “putting off and putting on" is found also in Ephesians and Colossians. In Ephesians, the believers are to put of the old self and put on the new self (4:22-24; cf. v. 25), while in Colossians they must put away anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk, and put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love (3:8-14). The author to the letter of Hebrews exhorts his readers to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely" so that they may be freed to run the race set before them (12:1). Finally, Peter also instructs his hearers to “put away" all malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander, and to hunger for the word of God that they may grow up into salvation (2:1-2). All these texts show that this was a common theme and metaphor in early Christian teaching.

James calls upon his readers to rid themselves of “all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness" (pasan rhyparian kai perisseian kakias). Rhyparian continues the clothing metaphor, its cognate being used for the shabby clothing of the poor in 2:2. The adjectival form is also used in Zechariah 3:3-4:

Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ And to him he said, ‘See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you in festal apparel.’

It is impossible to know whether this text stands behind the common New Testament usage, but its context is suggestive. Joshua the high priest must take off his filthy clothes and be clothed with “festal apparel" (“pure vestments" [ESV]) in order to stand before the Angel of the Lord. The change of clothing is a symbol of his cleansing from sin, and so the change of status given him. The metaphoric use of the term also indicates that the concern of the writer is with moral filthiness. The “rank growth of wickedness" (perisseian kakias) is literally, “abundance of evil," although as already noted, it may be better to understand kakias as malice (cf. vv. 19-20; 1 Peter 2:1). This translation would suggest that James’ admonition in verses 19-20 were not simply general advice, but specific instruction directed toward disunity and anger in his community. The NRSV correctly picks up the “middle voice of the participle: “rid yourselves," which indicates the believer’s responsibility for a deliberate and decisive repudiation of all these things.

Repentance in the New Testament, however, is more than simply repudiation. Not only must the believer turn from that which is evil; they must also turn toward and embrace that which is good. Thus the second part of the verse—"and receive with meekness the implanted word" (en praútēti dexasthe ton emphyton logon)—provides this balance in James’ teaching. Praútēs (meekness, gentleness or humility) stands in contrast to the anger and refusal to listen of verses 19-20. Instead of an aggressive or demanding disposition, James’ hearers must adopt the meekness that characterised Jesus (Matthew 11:29) and so “receive with meekness" the implanted word. Vlachos (57) suggests that the aorist imperative for “receive" (dexasthe) be interpreted in parallel to apothemenoi as a “true middle" with the sense of “open yourselves up to" the word of God, and so once more affirming the believer’s responsibility. The imperative calls the community to a humble listening to and hearing of the word of God (“be quick to hear!"), which must be welcomed and embraced if it is to work powerfully in one’s life. That this word must be “received" and is also “implanted" in us, shows that it is a work of grace to which we are called to respond, one of the good and perfect gifts which is from above (v.17), and for which we are allowed to pray (v. 5).

How is this word implanted? That it must be received suggests that it comes from without, most likely through the preaching and teaching ministries of the church. In verse 18 James showed us that our “new birth" was occasioned “by the word of truth," which as we noted then, is an expression synonymous in the New Testament with the gospel. James says more: this word “has the power to save your souls" (ton dunamenon sosai tas psychas humon). Believers are to “open themselves up to" this word, maintain a continual openness toward it, so that its power might be continually at work within them. Although we are already born again or brought forth by the word of truth (v. 18), we are still awaiting the completion of our salvation, which in James refers to deliverance from the eschatological judgement which is yet to come. The same word by which we were brought to new birth is the same word by which we grow and by which we finally will be delivered. When James says that our soul will be saved, he likely is referring to our whole person, and not simply to some immaterial aspect of our being.

This verse, then, is a call to repentance—a life of continual repentance, which includes a decisive turning away from all the kinds of evil that characterised our pre-Christian life, and a humble, voluntary openness and submission to God through his word. This is not to be understood as a dour or joyless life, but as a life lived in accordance with God’s good and perfect purpose, a life, James will go on to explain, of liberty, generosity and moral integrity.


But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

James continues his instruction from the previous verse where he exhorted his listeners to "receive with meekness the implanted word." Not only is his community to open themselves up to the word of God, but they are to be careful to "do" the word.

This is an idea with a long history in the Jewish tradition. When Israel came out of Egypt they were thirsty in the wilderness after days without water. When they came to the spring of Marah, they could not drink the water because it was bitter. In desperation Moses cried out to the Lord who showed him a log or a tree which Moses threw into the spring with the result that "the water became sweet" (Exodus 15:22-25a).

There the Lord made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, saying, "If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer" (vv. 25b-26).

In this story the Lord uses the Israelites’ thirst and experience at Marah as an object lesson that they should listen to and obey God’s voice. The following statement has a doubled emphasis on listening and doing, giving ear and keeping all the Lord’s commandments, together with the promise that such faithfulness will result in divine blessing. This pattern of doing God’s words is repeated in the covenant ceremony in Exodus 19:4-8 and 24:1-8, and in the descriptions of covenant blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28:1-2, 15 (see also: Deuteronomy 29:29; 31:12; Joshua 1:7-8; 23:6; 2 Kings 17:34, 37; cf. Romans 2:13: "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified."). Scot McKnight (147-148) suggests that since Torah and "do" (‘asah) appear together so often in the Hebrew Bible, we ought to see in James’ instruction a distinctively Christian form of Torah observance.

More directly, the call to do the word echoes Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:21-27 and Luke 6:46-49 (see also Luke 11:27-28; John 8:31-32). Jesus’ parable of the builder distinguishes between those who simply hear his words without doing them, and those who hear and do his words. The difference between the builders is only finally observed when the storm arises and the one who has done what Jesus says stands firm.

Thus James instructs his community to "Be doers of the word and not merely hearers" (Ginesthe de poiētai logou kai mē monon akroatai). Although most English versions translate the particle de as "but," it may be better to read it as "and," thus emphasising the continuation of thought of this verse with what James has just said in verse 21 about receiving the word. The imperative ginesthe may be understood in the sense of "become" doers or "continue being" doers of the word. If James’ exhortation in verses 19-21 is directed to a divided community riven with strife and malice, it may be better to read the first sense. Poiētai usually means to make, construct or compose something, but here is likely a Semitism based on the tradition of "doing the Law" (so Vlachos, 58).

What, precisely, does it mean to "do the word"? Initially it simply means to enact it, apply it and obey what it says. This is more easily understood when a direct command is in view. Much of Scripture, however, does not take the form of command, and so a broader interpretation of "do" is appropriate. The community of God’s people is to inculcate the vision and ethos of Scripture, obey the specific commands of Scripture, embody the values of Scripture, and take its place in the ongoing narrative of Scripture. 

It may be, however, that James has an even sharper perspective. Verse 18 indicates that the community has been brought forth by the "word of truth," that is, the gospel, and it may be that James intends that his hearers be doers of this word specifically. Davids suggests that it was a simple transition in the early church from thinking in terms of "doing the Law" to "doing the Word," especially when Jesus’ teaching was understood as a new kind of law. Thus for Davids, James is calling the community to obey the gospel, which primarily has to do with Jesus’ ethical teaching (96; cf. Matthew 7:24 "the one who hears these words of mine").

Those who merely hear the word without doing it "deceive themselves" (paralogizomenoi heautous): their faith is not authentic, but pretence, or at least, as yet immature and not fully formed. Such people may believe they are Christians, and so part of the eschatological community of God’s people, but in James’ view, they are mistaken, or more strongly, self-deceived. They are presuming on God. That the self-deception has to do with eschatological salvation seems likely given the call to repentance in verse 21. They have not actually received the saving word or carried repentance through to its conclusion. They are like Jesus’ builder who builds on the sand and so whose house collapses when the storm of judgement is unleashed. For James, this teaching must be taken with utmost seriousness: "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).

In this text, then, we have a foreshadowing of the theme that James will develop more fully in 2:14-26, that is, faith without works is dead. James has already acknowledged that his listeners have been "born again" through the gospel, but also allows no place for complacence or presumption. True faith is active, issuing in a life of persevering obedience to the will of God, resulting in the realisation of "the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him" (v. 12).


For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 

Having admonished his hearers, James now reinforces his teaching with an illustration which shows how those who only hear the word without doing it are self-deceived. The first phrase repeats the language of verse 22 in the form of a conditional statement: "For if any are hearers of the word and not doers" (hoti ei tis akroatēs logou estin kai ou poiētēs). Hoti often translates as "because" but may also be used in a weaker sense as "for" as most English versions have it. Vlachos (59) prefers to tie logou to poiētēs so that the phrase reads, "if anyone is a hearer and not a doer of the word." This translation is an even stronger echo of verse 22, though the essential meaning of the phrase is unchanged.

James then provides a simile to show what this person who only hears the word is like (cf. 1:6 where James also uses a simile to portray the one who doubts). "They are like those who look at themselves in a mirror" (houtos eoiken andri katanoounti to prosopon tēs geneseos autou en esoptro). Houtos eoiken ("this one is like") refers back to the "any" of the first phrase. Although andri usually refers to a man or a husband, James tends to use the word the way other New Testament books use anthropos, that is, to refer to human persons in a generic rather than a gendered sense (Vlachos, 29; cf. Brown, NIDNNT 3:686-687). The unusual phrase in this clause is to prosopon tēs geneseos autou (literally, "the face of his birth"). The NRSV and NIV ignore the phrase altogether and translate as "they look at themselves." The ESV and NASB translate "his natural face." Some commentators, however, see a deeper meaning in the phrase, linking it not simply to their "natural face," but to their "genesis" in God, the "origin" of their existence in his image. Scot McKnight, for example, suggests that the phrase could take an ontological sense in which it means that the person looks into the mirror and sees the image of God they were created to be, or in a moral sense in which the person sees in the mirror a fallen and sinful person who does not attain to what they were created to be (150-152; cf. Davids, 98; Moo, 84-85). Vlachos notes that verse 24 replaces the phrase with the simple reflexive "themselves," and so suggests that the phrase is best understood in the sense of their "natural face," although he also thinks that Genesis 1:26-27 lies in the background (59-60).


For they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 

In any case, these hearers "look at themselves" in the mirror (katenoēsen gar heauton). The "look" is not a simple or superficial glance, for the words used in verses 23 and 24 (both derived from katanoeo) mean to consider, contemplate, gaze or stare. Nevertheless, even though they carefully examine their appearance in the mirror as they comb their hair or apply their make-up, "on going away" (kai apelēluthen), they "immediately forget what they were like" (kai eutheos epelatheto hopoios ēn). Hopoios is literally, "what kind or sort of," and so suggests that the person who only hears the word and does not do it forgets what sort of person they are. That is, the study of their own appearance in the mirror is only temporary, having no lasting effect in the actual activity of the person as they go about their business for the day. As Davids notes, "it is useless" (98). The point James makes is that the temporary nature of one’s study of oneself in the mirror lacks any real or lasting effect.


But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere,
being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

Finally, the point of James’ little parable becomes clear. James has exhorted his listeners to be doers of the Word and not hearers only, for the one who is only a hearer and not a doer is like a person who upon looking at their image in a mirror, goes away and immediately forgets what they look like. Literally, they forget what kind of person they are (vv. 22-24). "But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty," says James, "and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing." The point of the parable revolves around the contrast between hearers who forget and doers who act. It is this particular contrast which draws together the language of the previous verses and so unites the whole passage.

Another contrast has been suggested. Some commentators, for example, contrast the "momentary glance" into the mirror with the sustained and persevering study of the Scriptures. The language James uses, however, does not allow this. In verse 23, the word used for looking into the mirror is katanoounti which means to "take note of, consider, to study," or as Moo notes, the word regularly connotes thoughtful, attentive consideration. So, too, the word used in this verse, parakypto, literally has the sense of "to bend over to look at more closely, to peer" (Zerwick-Grosvenor, 693; Moo, 83). Thus the contrast between the two persons is not in the manner of the looking, but in the doing as opposed to the forgetting. The person who merely hears the Word gains no more lasting benefit from the Word than they do from looking at themselves in the mirror (Moo). The person who perseveres in the Word and is a doer, however, is blessed in their doing.

The details of this verse are worth pondering. James shifts his language in this verse from that which he used earlier. In verses 18, 21, 22 and 23 he refers to the "Word," whereas in verse 25 this Word has become "the perfect law, the law of liberty" (nomon teleion tov tēs eleutherias). Further, instead of "doers of the Word" as in vv. 22-23, the person is now a "doer who acts," or literally, "a doer of the work" (poiētēs ergou).

What does James mean by his first shift? The first thing to note is that for the Jew, the law signified God’s revealed and authoritative will. That the Jews considered the law to be good and perfect is clearly seen in such passages as Psalms 19:7-10 and Romans 7:12. That James saw some continuing validity in the law is seen in 2:8-12 and 4:11-12. In James 2:8-12 James again refers to the "law of liberty" (v. 12) as well as referring to "the royal law" when citing Leviticus 18:19. Further, in this text, the law as a principle and not simply as a rule, is still valid. If a person keeps the whole law, but fails in one point, they become accountable for the whole. In 4:11-12 James refers to God as the lawgiver and judge, thus emphasising the divine authority which lies behind the law.

Is James therefore teaching in verse 25 that the believer must diligently persevere in the Old Testament law in order to be blessed? The matter is not quite that simple. Although James certainly sees the continuing validity of some aspects of the law (see, e.g. 2:8, 11), it is likely that he is reading the law not simply as a Jew, but as a Messianic Jew, that is, as a follower of Jesus in whom the law has been fulfilled (Moo, 50). This is seen most obviously in the flow of James’ argument to this point. The "Word" which James has been referring to throughout this section is the word of truth (v. 18), that is, the gospel. When he substitutes the phrase "the perfect law of liberty" James does not simply jettison the gospel and substitute the Mosaic law as the basis of Christian life and blessing, but reads the law "in a Jesus kind of way" (McKnight, 158), or as Davids expresses the same idea, the "perfect law of liberty" refers to "the Old Testament ethic as explained and altered by Jesus… [i.e.] the teaching of Jesus" (100). James, together with other early Christians—including Paul—viewed the law as fulfilled and perfected in Jesus, and so Jesus as the giver of a new or renewed law (Davids, 99). This, perhaps, is the point of Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, especially in Matthew 5:17-48. Paul, too, can refer to "the Law of Christ" in Galatians 6:2 and 1 Corinthians 9:21, where it likely has reference to the love commandment which fulfils the law (Romans 13:8-10), and is thus the equivalent of James’ "royal law" (2:8), and an echo of Jesus’ second great commandment (Mark 12:31). James’ point is simple: the good news of the gospel includes an unavoidable and searching demand for obedience (Moo, 84). Put theologically, the gospel does not supersede the law but includes the law, though the law fulfilled and radically reinterpreted and refocused by Jesus.

James’ second shift is from "doers of the Word" to "doers of the work." While it is probably better to translate poiētēs ergou as a "doer who acts" in order to maintain the contrast with the "hearer who forgets," we do well to pause over James’ use of ergon here, given that "work" and "works" constitute a major theme in his letter, and his use here presages the major treatment of the theme which he will undertake in 2:14-26. Further, in verses 26-27 James will bring this section to its climax by identifying three particular kinds of "work" or activity he intends his listeners to engage in, including especially the work of controlling the tongue, as well as works of mercy and holiness.

James, then, understands the law of liberty in terms of obedience to Jesus’ teaching as he reinterprets the law, and so as a word which makes free (cf. John 8:31-32). The believer is to "persevere" (kai parameinas) in this liberating Word as a doer who acts and thus as a doer of the work. Although Zerwick-Grosvenor (693) suggest that the perseverance is in the activity of looking into the perfect law of liberty, it is better to understand it in the sense of practicing what one finds there, as James goes on to say. In this way one becomes a "doer who acts" rather than a "hearer who forgets" (ouk akroatēs epilēsmonēs alla poiētēs ergou), and so one who also "will be blessed in their doing" (houtos makarios en tē poiēsei autou estai). Estai is future and so suggests that the blessing will be eschatological (cf. v. 12). Nevertheless, the "doer" will be blessed "in the doing" suggesting that a blessing will also accompany the actual act, and so the blessing may have a temporal as well as an eschatological aspect. 


If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues
but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 

With these two verses James summarises his discussion in this chapter, brings it to its climax, and also prepares for the major discussion that he will undertake in the next sections of the letter. It is possible that in these verses James identifies the key theme of the chapter, and indeed, of the entire epistle: true religion. The word translated "religion" (thrēskos, adjective, in verse 26a, and thrēskeia, noun, 26b, 27) is used only infrequently in biblical Greek, the adjective (26a) only here. Generally it describes outward expressions of religious devotion and may be used in either a positively (e.g. Acts 26:5) or negatively (e.g. Colossians 2:18). James uses it in both senses in these two verses, negatively in verse 26, while positively in verse 27. While it is unclear what particular expressions of religious devotion James may have in mind in his initial comments, it is likely that he would include such things as prayer, fasting and corporate worship (Davids, 101).

For the third time in this chapter James uses an ei tis construction ("if anyone"; cf. vv. 5, 23). Although his statement is set up as a conditional clause, he probably has an actual situation in mind. In this case, there are, perhaps, some who parade their religious observance and think themselves uncommonly spiritual: "If any think they are religious" (Ei tis dokei thrēskos). The problem, however, is that if these same people fail to "bridle their tongue" (mē kalinagogon glossan autou), they have "deceived their own hearts" (alla apaton kardian autou) about the true nature of their religious practice: their undisciplined speech subverts and undermines their devotion so that they are not actually "religious" at all.

James, of course, has already raised the use of the tongue in verses 19-21, where we found that he was concerned that some in the congregation were tearing at one another with angry and malicious words. What the believers must learn instead is to "bridle" or "restrain" their tongue. Kalinagogon, the word used here (and in 3:2), may have been coined by James for it appears in Greek for the first time in this verse (Davids, 101), and only in these instances in biblical Greek. The participle is in the present tense and so suggests that the persons concerned speak in undisciplined ways at the same time that they consider themselves religious.

Finally, James brings his conditional clause to a devastating conclusion: "their religion is worthless" (toutou mataios hē thrēskeia). Mataios means that something is useless, futile or worthless, and in this statement means that their diligent religious practice produces nothing of value either before God or in their own lives. Their religious practice is empty and perhaps even fraudulent. Just as the one who only hears the Word without doing it is deceived, so the person who practices their religion without disciplining their tongue is deceived. Just as angry speech cannot and does not produce the righteousness of God (v. 19), so religious activities without accompanying works do not produce anything of value or worth. It is the "doer of the work" who is blessed (v. 25), and the first work that James highlights is the difficult work of taming the tongue. True religion, true spirituality requires this discipline.

As we have repeatedly seen in our discussion of James 1, James’ teaching echoes the teaching of Jesus who also emphasised the importance of disciplined speech:

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgement people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12:33-37).

Our speech is a truer indication of our heart than our religious practice. The way we speak and use our words reveals the nature, condition and content of the heart. If our heart is filled with vicious anger and malicious intent, it will be betrayed in our speech, and all the religious practice in the world will not cover or disguise the truth of our condition.


Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James turns now from that form of religion which is worthless and empty, to that "religion which is pure and undefiled before God, the Father" (thrēskeia kathara kai amiantos para to theo kai patri). The language calls to mind the vision of purity in the Old Testament, and indicates as McKnight (168) notes, the condition and aptness of those who will may live in the land or enter the temple, and whose lives exhibit utter fidelity to God and the Torah. In this case, however, it is the religious observance itself rather than the religious person which is described as pure and undefiled. What James has in mind is not the excellence, exuberance or expressiveness of the worship service. Pure religion is not found in flawless performance of religious duties or rituals, but in a life of faithful devotion to God in which God’s values are enacted in our lives. It is wrong to assume that James would do away with religious services of worship, or with formal expressions of devotion. What he insists upon is religious conviction that issues in moral goodness. Here James stands in a direct line deriving from the prophets:

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies … Take away from me the noise of your songs; … But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24).

"What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?" says the Lord; "I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts.… I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moon and your appointed feasts, my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. …  Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause" (Isaiah 1:11-17; cf. Isaiah 58:1-14; Micah 6:1-8).

James identifies the particular kind of religious practice that God values, desires and accepts in terms of two aspects of God’s righteousness which are to be integrated into the believing community: God’s compassion, and God’s holiness. Or we might say that God’s righteousness and holiness has a social dimension as well as a personal dimension. Some Christian groups emphasise the one side at the expense of the other, but James insists that both sides must be emphasised and nurtured in the Christian community, for both aspects are constitutive of true righteousness and hence of true religious devotion.

Therefore, true religion "is this" (hautē estin): "to visit orphans and widows in their distress" (episkeptesthai orphanous kai chēras en tē thlipsis). Orphans and widows are regularly mentioned in Scripture as those particularly in need of assistance, and God’s people are commanded to care for them not only in view of their need, but in order to embody and enact God’s own care for the vulnerable (see, for example, Exodus 22:22 and Deuteronomy 10:17-18; cf. Deuteronomy 24:17-22; 27:19). God cares for the vulnerable through the care expressed and enacted by his people. In the Old Testament, the basis for this requirement was twofold. Because God cares for the orphan and the widow, so God’s people are to do likewise. Because God had redeemed his people from their own slavery and suffering, now they were to do likewise on behalf of others who suffer and are afflicted. In both testaments "orphans and widows" are a paired category, and exemplify more generally those in need of care (Vlachos, 64), including others who may be vulnerable, or socially and economically marginalised, such as the homeless, the unemployed, the refugee, the frail aged, or the chronically ill.

The particular action James prescribes is that the believer "visit" (episkeptesthai) the afflicted. Here again Vlachos (64) is helpful, noting that the word is used in both testaments of God "visiting" his people in order to rescue them (e.g. Genesis 50:24; Ruth 1:6; Acts 15:14; cf. Luke 1:68, 78; 7:16), and in the New Testament of visiting the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25:36). Jesus not only taught his followers to visit those in need but also practised such care himself, buttressing his teaching with his example (e.g. Mark 1:29-30; 2:15-17; 5:21-24). Visitation requires personal engagement with the afflicted on their turf, and so also involves a degree of commitment and risk on the part of those who visit, who may be required to leave their own comforts and the safety of their own environment for a time. Note, too, that visitation which pleases the Father is not confined to the community of the believers, although it must also include those within the community. James has already shown that God, the "father of lights" is the universal father and creator, and so God’s compassion extends to all. Finally, Scot McKnight (168-169) notes that episkeptesthai is a cognate of episkopos, the New Testament word for overseer or bishop, and comments on the "sad irony" that so much scholarship concerning church leadership and governance is focussed on issues of authority rather than the pastoral ministry of visitation.

True religion is also characterised as "to keep oneself unstained by the world" (aspilon heauton tērein apo tou kosmou). The apostle Peter uses aspilon to refer to Christ as a "spotless" sacrifice (1 Peter 1:19), where the term is paired with amomos ("without blemish") which is used often in the Old Testament with reference to sacrificial offerings (Davids, 103). Though the term can have a cultic reference, here James uses it with a moral sense. Indeed it is arguable that this is what it also means in 1 Peter; that is, Jesus is "without blemish and without spot" in the sense that he is without sin. So, too, the believing community is to remain unstained or unspotted in and despite its interactions with the world. The ministry of visitation will invariably involve the congregation in the life and conditions of the world. So, too, will the responsibilities and engagements of everyday life. The community is not to withdraw or become isolated from the world. But neither can it become the "friend" of the world (James 4:4).

Although the New Testament knows nothing of a metaphysical dualism between God and the world, the sense of a moral dualism is thorough-going, being found especially in Paul and John, as well as here in James. That is, although the world as a natural creation is good and belongs to God the creator, the "world" as a system of human culture and activity is often organised in opposition to the will of God, betraying a disposition toward that which is evil (Davids, 103; cf. Vlachos, 65). It is on this basis that James denies that one can simultaneously be a friend both of God and of the world (4:4). Thus although the community exists in active engagement with the world, there is also an inevitable distance from the world in terms of its cultural values and priorities. This tension surfaces often and in many different forms in the life of the Christian community. In James, it is likely that the kinds of "worldliness" he has in mind concern envy, covetousness and greed which issue in strife, conflict, division and malice (see 1:9-11; 2:1-13; 3:13-16; 4:1-3; 13-17). Nevertheless, all kinds of sin bring forth death (1:14-15), and there can be no doubt that James called his listeners to moral purity in all its forms. True religion involves both generous compassion and moral cleanliness. To keep oneself unstained from the world means to avoid its patterns of thought, and to refrain thinking and acting in accordance with its value system and priorities (Moo, 87).

In verses 26-27, then, James describes true religion in terms of (a) bridling one’s tongue, (b) caring for the afflicted, and (c) maintaining holiness in the midst of the world. In some respects, each of these characteristics is necessary for those who would be "friends of God" (James 4:4). These three aspects of true religion will become his main focus in the remainder of his letter, with chapter three picking up the theme of the tongue, chapter two the necessity of active compassion for the poor, while chapter four calls for humble repentance and holiness. 
Comparison / Typology
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Introduction to James

Book Introduction Coming Soon.

Commentary List

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