Epistle of James, Chapter 1 – The travelling people of God

Pasi Hujanen
Taisto Sokka

God’s people are away from home – James 1:1

To whom did James write the letter? What does ” the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” mean?

There are three alternatives:
1. The Jews
2. The Jewish Christians
3. Both Jewish and Gentile Christians

James could not write to the Jews, because he and his recipients have a common faith (2:1): Jesus is Lord. James would not have called the Jews his brothers (1:2). Therefore, either one from the two latter alternatives has been chosen according to the interpreter.

We can presume that James refers to the whole “new Israel” which is the Church, who lived in dispersion, away from home. After the exile of Babylon, the Jews were still divided – and still are – in two groups:
1. Those, who lived in Israel, in the Eastern Mediterranean.
2. Those, who lived abroad, dispersed away from home.

All Christians live ”away from home”, because the only real home for Christians is Heaven (ref. 2 Cor 5:1–7, especially verse 6).

It is noteworthy, that the early congregation of Jerusalem was the leading congregation of the Church. Therefore, the Letter of its leader had a lot to say to all Christians, though James and Peter had focused on the mission to the Jews (Gal 2:1-10).

Trials and temptations – James 1:2-18

This section includes many individual ideas which are connected to each other by the theme of temptations.

James gives a picture of two different chain reactions: a positive one in verses 2–4 and a negative one in verses 14–15. Which way will our lives develop?

The alternatives are:
1. Trial – steadfastness – perfection.
2. Temptation – desire – sin – death.

The word ”trial” refers to something that is positive and pushes for growth. The word ”temptation” refers to something harmful and negative. We can never avoid trials.

Once a certain Bible teacher said that most transgressions of Christians come, because instead of fleeing it, we start to fight against it. But if we always flee, we never get stronger in faith. We can ponder when it is good to flee and when to fight and resist the temptation. In both presented chain reactions apply the same principle: The farther it gets, the more difficult it is to stop it.

The thought in verse 13 speaks about God as a supposed tempter into sin. The thought seems to refer to an idea, that ”God has created me to be weak. Therefore, I transgress, and I cannot avoid it.” Even though the tempter is under the rule of God, we cannot blame God for our transgressions. God provides us a way of escape if we are willing to take it (ref. 1 Cor 10:13).

When the Mediterranean wind Sirocco starts to blow to the East over Palestine, the grass withers very quickly – in seconds. So happens also to the fortune of the rich: It fades away and perishes. Therefore, you should not envy the rich (verse 11).

James has often been blamed for giving high hopes about the capabilities of man. In verse 4 he seems to believe that man can achieve perfection. But this is a one-sided argument because the whole section speaks about trials and temptations.

Is a Christian not allowed to doubt (verses 5–8)? Here, it is useful to make a division between theoretical and practical doubt. Theoretical doubt is human weakness; nobody can have perfect trust in God’s promises. On the other hand, practical doubt is acting according to this doubt: Instead of trusting God, you trust your own strength. Apparently, James writes specifically about the latter one.

Verse 17 reminds us that God is such a great light, that in Him there is no shadow due to change. Even a small shadow is nowhere to be found, so we cannot escape the radiance of God.

Obedience is proper worship – James 1:19–27

James emphasizes doing and not merely hearing the Word of God just as Jesus (Matt 7:21–23) and St. Paul did (Rom 2:13). Often James seeks to find an answer to the question: What does true faith result in? St. Paul, on the other hand, focuses more on the foundation of our faith.

You could say that our deeds either defend or deny our words. If we do one thing and say the other, our teaching loses its meaning and credibility (refer to the word of Jesus against the Pharisees, Matt 23:3).

The Word of God is like a mirror, which shows us what kind of people we are (verse 23). Simultaneously, it shows us what we should become.

A Christian living by the law of liberty (verse 25) will not be saved by obeying the law, but he can freely serve his neighbour without seeking a reward.

Helping orphans and widows (verse 27) was a central form of diaconal work in the Early Church (Acts 6:1–3). This word about visiting orphans and widows also refers to the words of Jesus about the final judgement (Matt 25:31–43).

This section could be summarize as follows:

”Be doers of the word, and not hearers only”
(James 1:22).