I am excited to study the general letter of James to the churches with you.  As we begin our studies in the this book, let me start by making clear that the book itself was written by a man known as James the Less, who was NOT an apostle.  His importance will become clear momentarily.  We know this book was written somewhere between AD 44 and 49, because there is no mention of the great Jerusalem Council, at which James played a prominent part.  The Apostle James was martyred before AD 44, as his death is recorded at the hands of Herod in Acts 12:2.  He was known as James the Greater, or the Apostle James, and this is James the Less.  Who is this man?  He was none other than Yacov bar Yosef, younger half-brother of Jesus, something Roman Catholics tend to miss since they believe that Jesus’ mother Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus.  This is categorically untrue, and the Scriptures themselves tell us this in Matthew (13:56) and Mark (6:3).

I can tell you that I had three younger sisters, so I kind of get this, but not from a younger sibling perspective, which is how Yacov, or James in English, must have felt.  A lot could be said about the dynamics of being a little brother, I suppose, but I don’t know how relevant that really is to our study of James, so we’ll leave that alone.  What we DO know is that James was profoundly affected by his older brother’s sermon on the mount.  One of the suggestions that I had while looking into this was to compare the two passages, and James is almost a commentary on that sermon, in exact order.  Dr. John MacArthur references and illustrates this in his New Testament Commentary on James. 

As always, we should consider a little background on the book, and for this I searched what is on the internet, and as many commentaries as I could lay my hands on, with the exception of Matthew henry, because I have it as of part of the software I use to read the Scriptures on the computer, so I look at it all the time.  What I found was that the letter more or less addresses itself towards particular errors that had been creeping into the church in his days, and sadly have continued from that time.  It seems to be the way of it–error arises, that error is refuted, those in error split from fellowship and continue the error, and usually introduce further error.  And the error never goes away, it’s just that those who are really His learn how to refute it to other real believers, and sometimes, win the odd brother from the strangest places.  I’ve seen it happen that a brother was in fellowship with 7th day Adventists, and then when shown the truth, he left those guys and joined a church interested in following Jesus, not just saying they are following Jesus while doing weird stuff.

Something that should stand out about James as the author of the letter is the Jewishness of his character.  There are I think four direct quotes from the Old Testament, several allusions to the same, and the old Jewish equation of “adultery” to spiritual decline and apostacy.  It is in a sense, true idolatry, in that you make something else God instead of the real and true God, YHWH.  James also expresses himself in terms from the Old Testament; you will note the book is addressed to the “twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad,” in keeping with the very earliest traditions of the church (1:2).  He even calls the meeting place of his readers the word that we transliterate as “synagogue” in 2:2.  It is the way he thinks because it is who he is (and I say is, because he is alive in heaven with Jesus today).

Having said all that, I should make it known to you that less conservative biblical scholars have rejected this James as the author of this letter.  You would also probably be surprised as to their reasoning, and to those of us who make study of such things, we know this reasoning is problematic at best.  I have to thank Dr. John MacArthur for helping some of this make sense for me.

First, the say that James as an ancient Jew would not have spoken Greek, nor have been capable of writing in such poetic terms in such polished Greek.  Oh, like they know…First, MANY Jews of the first century probably spoke Greek for reasons of trade, and this would have been especially true of the Galilee, and uniquely Nazareth, which lay on a major trade route.  As the younger brother of Jesus, James probably knew Greek from boyhood.  On top of this, as the de facto leader of the believers in Jerusalem, he would have had great familiarity with the Hellenist Jews that were a part of the church from the very beginning.  His communications with them would have given him more than ample opportunity to polish his Greek.  This is true wherever you look.  I don’t often admit it, and I lack the confidence to speak it, but since I have lived in Ottawa, I have had my French skills sharpened better than if I had stayed in the Northwestern Ontario, though there were a few French speakers there.  Je ne parle pas Français, mais je comprends plus vous pensez, n’est pas?  That is, I don’t speak French, but I understand WAY more than you think I do, so be careful what you say in front of me, right?  Just kidding.  That’s a personal example of what I mean about James.

Also, these same so-called “scholars” suggest that because there is no mention of him being the Lord’s brother, this must not be him.  I think they make the mistake of holding that position of being some kind of important, and worthy of exhaltation in itself, but like Paul, James understood that there was no profit in “knowing Jesus according to the flesh” (2 Cor 5:16) anymore.  [Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer.]  I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me, because man always puts the wrong emPHAsis an the wrong SyLABle.  It is what we do as sinners, and we do it most often.

The book itself was likely written before AD 49, which was the approximate date of the Jerusalem Council, recorded for us in Acts 15.  For the record, we base this date on there being no reference whatsoever to that Council, nor any of the issues that it discussed in this letter, which in my thinking is a very strong suggestion that these issues had not yet officially arisen.  There are no references in the book to Gentiles or Gentile churches, and the most likely era for this is then between AD44 and AD 49, making this the very first book of the New Testament ever written.  It was likely written in Jerusalem, because that is where James lived and served our Lord.

This book through history has presented its share of issues for believers, and that list of men included none other than Martin Luther, who frankly didn’t know what to do with the legalistic work of James, because in his own reading, it contradicted the narrative of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  Luther was known to characterize the book as “an epistle of straw” for that reason, stating that it had no evangelical character.  Some have even suggested that Luther wanted the book removed from the Scriptures, but in reality, he never suggested that.  His biggest objection to the book was that it appeared to counter what Paul said in his letters.  Really it does not, Paul and James were talking about the same line of argument but from opposing ends.  In reality, they are saying the same thing, and we will show that at the appropriate time in our studies.

I break the book into sections that will serve as a study guide for the texts we will study every week.

KV4:15 –  A Treatise On Living as a Christian in an Evil World

Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.”

1:1-18 – Faith [in trials] goes with Humility, Doubt with Pride

1:19-1:27 – Religion that Makes No Behavioural Difference is WORTHLESS

2:1-13 – Policies that Make Distinctions in the Church are EVIL

2:14-26 – Faith Producing No Change Is NOT Faith

3:1-12 – FRUIT CHECK!  What do you talk about most of the time?

3:13-4:12 – Old Nature vs. New Nature – An Exposition

4:13-5:6 – Your Will vs. The Lord’s Will – A Contrast

5:7-20 – The Point:  To Turn Ourselves and Others to the Truth

I will try to say a little bit about everything, but this being an overview of the larger text, I will do so in broad terms, and leave the specificity to the actual studies themselves.

KV4:15 –  A Treatise On Living as a Christian in an Evil World

Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.”

As my titling reflects on this general letter to the church, at this point largely Jewish believers, but not exclusively, James is writing a treatment of the question of what it means to live as a Christian in a broken and fallen world.  When we look around today at current events, politics, medical news, earthquakes and famines, wars and rumours of wars dominate the headlines…just as they did in those days, though today probably more so, as the Lord said would happen as we near the end of the current age on earth.  James’ words are as appropriate now as they were in the very early days of Christianity.  In James’ day when he wrote this, it is likely the word Christian was not coined yet, or had not largely caught on (that happened in Antioch, some distance from Jerusalem).  What James was so forcefully communicating was that we know that the world is broken because of sin, and for the same reasons, all of mankind is tainted by an evil so deep that it will kill us if we let it, even as believers.  John Owen wrote a treatise on this called The Mortification of Sin that we looked at in our Friday small group book studies. 

This is where we come to Martin Luther’s particular difficulty with James.  At the time, Luther had only just discovered salvation by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone.  Soteriology at the time had been reduced by the Roman Catholic Church to doing deeds on which your eternal soul depended for salvation called sacraments.  Luther had discovered that one’s own justification relied on faith in Christ alone, and that it was a free gift that God gave, but he did not completely understand the idea of sanctification, the process whereby the believer is made whole.  I do not say this as a criticism of Luther, but rather to point out that we ALL need to be taught this, and Luther was no exception.  It wasn’t until Calvin came along later that Luther began to understand the change in nature and the change in behaviour that accompanied this, historically.  In fact, a great deal is made of Luther’s disagreements with one Ulrich Zwingle on the Lord’s supper that was a part of this larger and related debate on sanctification and ding the Lord’s will.  The two were never able to find the language to agree on that topic, but in some later letters between Calvin and Luther, Luther admitted in writing that had Calvin been there, he would likely have been able to have brought the two of them together on the issue of the Lord’s Supper.  All that to say that NONE of us understand the topic completely, but over the 500 years or so since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, our understanding of Soteriology, salvation itself, has expanded, and James has had a part to play through this letter.

Early discussion on “sanctification,” a term used by another writer in the New Testament, specifically Paul, and no less than nine times in 5 letters (and I am including Hebrews in that count, I am of the opinion that Hebrews was an early sermon preached by Paul, and later written down by none other than doctor Luke, but that is conjecture on my part), defined the word hagiasmos in Greek as that process by which the Lord perfects the character and behaviour of His servants on earth.  James talks about this concept in terms of the disciples’ behaviour without ever using the word.  John and Peter both use the words in their New Testament writings, and the very clearly understood the concept.

What seems to be largely MISUNDERSTOOD about this by the larger realm of Christendom (or what we have in the past called “churchianity” around here) is that only BELIEVERS can be sanctified this way, and these are things that need to happen AFTER justification by faith in Christ, that free gift of his vicarious sacrifice on the cross for all of our sins.  That isn’t the only additional field of study within soteriology, either.  We’ve talked about Justification, and Sanctification, but there is also Glorification, which we will leave out of this discussion except to say that is a clearly future event that will occur in our lives or after them when our issues of sin will be dealt with finally and for all of the rest of times and beyond.  This misunderstanding has given rise to no shortage of heresy today, from the most liberal unitarian Pentecostals to the strictest of legalistic (and unsaved, therefore not Christian) Seventh Day Adventists, not to speak of the other cults, personality-based or otherwise.

James wrote his letter as a roadmap for sanctification for BELIEVERS, addressing both our attitudes and behaviours in his letter, and provides a practical way of thinking about sanctification, as opposed to theologically defining it as Paul did in his letters.  People that say they say the opposite about how to become a Christian have not really read, and probably are not interested in reading, the New Testament as a whole, because it is obvious when we look at the historical timing of the writings that these guys are saying the same thing to different audiences.  Paul and James agreed at the later Jerusalem Council that what was important was that believers did the will of the Lord, and that will was both knowable and doable by them.  Hence my choice of Key Verse for the entire book of 4:15–“Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.'” 

I’ll try to give a bit of a roadmap here of where the book is going to take us.  I know I said earlier that this is a commentary on Jesus’ sermon on the mount, but Dr. John MacArthur illustrates that very clearly on page 2 of his New Testament Commentary on James that I will leave that to him.

1:1-18 – Faith [in trials] goes with Humility, Doubt with Pride

We have been saying around here literally for years that you can be known by the kind of fruit you are displaying to the rest of humanity.  Some of us have taken that seriously, and some of us not so much, but I will say that none of us are perfect or measure up without Christ’s direct help and enabling of it in our lives.  I think it is with that knowledge that James begins in v.2 of his letter with a statement that says that troubling times are to be for the Christian a source of joy, and then describes the process of how God makes us holy through our suffering, that he sanctifies us.

It should not come as a surprise that our response to trials is where our depth of holiness can be readily seen by others who are ALWAYS watching.  This requires a level of self-awareness and a level of humility to accept the things that the Lord brings your way to deal with.  Throwing a temper tantrum every time something goes wrong for you is one example of how one displays the fruit that they have been cultivating.  Another is harassing people until they agree with you for whatever reason, through whatever tone.  Our goal, remember, is to do what the Lord wants, not what we want, and showing our attitude is bad by these or other things is a clear indication that something is wrong in your walk with the Lord.  Another signal that James covers here is Doubt, and it is usually expressed in pride, like “I seriously DOUBT that…” or “That’s YOUR interpretation,” both of which are expressions of pride.  The first calls into question the character of the original speaker, the second calls into question both his integrity and his accuracy, particular in dealing with the Scripture.  After many years of observing this kind of behaviour, I can tell you that I think it expresses doubt, because if the individual was certain about his or her own assertion, he would actually enter into meaningful discussion instead of hurling this like a gauntlet of warning not to discuss the issue further.

James explains in this portion, which we will examine next week, the reasons and the whys and whereforses of the whole topic.

1:19-1:27 – Religion that Makes No Behavioural Difference is WORTHLESS

We’ve said this around here literally for years as well.  “A difference that makes no difference is not an actual difference,” is usually how we phrase it.  James’ topic here is what real religion is about, and he even takes the time to define it.  We tend to use “religion” like a bad word at BereanNation.com, and maybe we should be more careful.  Religion, a system of rules that govern moral behaviour, is not always a bad thing.  We actually have religious practices.  Generosity, self-control, sober thought, following the law (as long as it follows God’s law), and even the paying of one’s taxes is a form for the believer of religious expression, founded on the belief that God put political rulers in place for the betterment, the protection, and the preservation of humanity. 

In this part of his letter, James contrasts by way of imperative, and tells people that it isn’t enough just to hear what the Lord wants us to do and give mental assent to its rightness and correctness.  Instead, we must allow our faith in God to move us to action with respect to those “laws” or “rules” and specific action that furthers the kingdom of God and its coming on earth.  We will talk a great deal more about this, but some very interesting things come out of this, like the setting free of a slave, and this image is here and used by James.

The entire point of this section is that you cannot simply say that you believe that Jesus is God and that you believe He died for your sins personally, even though that is accurate and true.  You MUST live like it matters–or for you it doesn’t matter, and your behaviour is what displays that, as per the previous section of text.

2:1-13 – Policies that Make Distinctions in the Church are EVIL

People today are a lot less familiar, perhaps willingly, with the concept of partiality in a religious sense, even though they display it constantly, ourselves included.  We even say “I am partial to [fill in the blank].”  Partiality between believers, however, is actually a sin in the church, and James commands us not to have it.

Sadly, we see that many so-called “churches” have weak (or worse no) ecclesiology when we read that they are making the “unvaccinated” sit in a different (less beneficial) section, if they are allowed to attend the “church” at all.  Beloved, I know that the reasons for wanting policies on this kind of thing are complex and complicated by family at times.  I am aware of a family that will not be allowed to attend their place of fellowship as long as there is no “vaccine” policy in place where the unvaccinated are not allowed to attend worship, on pain of not seeing their grandchildren.  My heart really goes out to those folks, the Lord has allowed this in their lives for a reason, even if we don’t understand it.

But if we practiced what I saw termed today in a news headline as “vax-partheid,” we would in fact be practicing partiality just like James says we should not.  We are all the same before our all-powerful, and our all-knowing God.  This “pandemic” has not been as bad as we were led to believe it could have been, and for reasons that I’m sure have more to do with God’s mercy than anything else.  Martin Luther served the people during the honest-to-goodness actual Black Death, the Bubonic Plague, and he did so with the understanding that if that is the kind of death he was to honour God, there was nothing he could do to stop it, but there were people he could help–and so he did, and as many as possible.  I know he didn’t have the threat of never seeing his grandchildren over his head constantly, but there must be some way you can serve the Lord like Martin Luther did.

To make false divisions based on some kind of imaginary or even REAL status is unscriptural and sinful.  There is no longer any Jew or Greek, no Barbarian or Scythian (worse than Barbarian), no slave or free, heck no male or female.  How can we make a division like vaccinated or unvaccinated?  And if I read this right, very dangerous to do so for those who are in church leadership, but that’s another topic.

2:14-26 – Faith Producing No Change Is NOT Faith

This to me is one of the main points of all of the New Testament.  All I will say here, and I could say a lot, is that you can call yourself a Christian, but if you do that and you live like it has made no difference in your life, then you have not really believed, and you are not really a Christian.  You can get mad at me all you like about that, but Christ is meant to be at the very center of your being, and influence everything you do.  If He isn’t you aren’t.

People go to church thinking this is what makes them a Christian.  You may have heard me say this before, but that’s like going to McDonalds and thinking it makes you a cheeseburger.  It’s a subtle form of insanity and is a complete deception.  If Jesus is not the Lord of your life, and you are not following him, you are not an actual Christian.  Fortunately, if you really want to BE His follower, you can change that.

You see, Faith, the Greek word pistis, is actually a word that means a firm persuasion or opinion held so strongly that it motivates you to action.  This isn’t something you work up, but if it happens, and you should ask for that to happen, then it motivates literally everything you will say, do, or even think.  It is called regeneration (a term used by Paul in his letter to Titus, 3:5) or being born again/from above (it’s a deliberate word play Jesus used in John 3).  When the Lord does this in you, you are truly free, and it will cause your life to change!  It turned mine upside down, and that was a good thing.  God gloriously saved me and set me free from my sin!  And he will do it for you if you will but humbly turn from your sin (the meaning of the Greek word metanoia, “repent”) and ask his forgiveness.  He died to pay the penalty for your sins!  Will you not accept such grace from our King? 

We can talk later, and we have some resources we can point you to that will help.

3:1-12 – FRUIT CHECK!  What do you talk about most of the time?

Now, sometimes, ungrateful creatures that we are, and still hopelessly tainted and twisted by sin, we can forget all that I have just said, and we have plenty of help, in the form of distractions, and sometimes other worse things. 

There are ways we can keep a check on ourselves.  We can see what kind of fruit we are bearing ourselves.  Please, be careful you only inspect your OWN fruit.  We are not God-appointed fruit inspectors.  He does that Himself, and He doesn’t need us stirring up trouble here.  Again, this requires a certain kind of self-awareness without pride, and I offer this as a kind of self-examination tool.

What do you spend most of your time doing?  Are you always playing, for example, role-playing games?  I won’t decry the games themselves, though I could, because they can be a huge distraction, but if you spend every waking minute playing them, you have a problem, because you are not bearing any real fruit.  (I am aware that these games can also be beneficial, and I am not speaking against them, only over-playing them.)  Do you watch too much television?  Spend your time in local watering holes?  Is your conversation about sports?  What is it that you are using to distract yourself from the holy pursuit of Christ?

What you spend your time on outside of your employment (and sometimes even your employment) say a lot about who you are.  What is it telling you?  Please, again, I am not a fruit inspector, and you need to answer those questions to yourself alone about yourself alone.

3:13-4:12 – Old Nature vs. New Nature – An Exposition

One of the main points of the New Testament is that at our regeneration by Christ by the Holy Spirit as a gift from the Father is that He completely changes your nature.  The old you, the flesh, doesn’t just go away, but given that it was dead to begin with, it is replaced with a new and living Spirit, as the Holy Spirit moves in to your being and makes you alive, joining you to Christ in that Spirit.  That new nature has a new set of programming if you will, as opposed to the old “windows” model [heh, sorry, I’m a Mac guy], and needs to establish itself as the new and dominant programming.  Sometimes that takes time, sometimes it is instantaneous.  I remember when God saved me.  I knew I was different.  Some of the things he changed about me were instant.  I knew real love for the first time.  I had purpose for the first time.  I was able to say no to sin for the first time.

Some things took…longer.  On June 18 of this year, it was 36 years.  And there are still things that are changing, still things I am putting to death (mortifying, ala John Owen via the Apostle Paul), still things I am discovering.  James here makes an exposition here of the differences by instructing the believers to walk in the Spirit, though he uses other words.

4:13-5:6 – Your Will vs. The Lord’s Will – A Contrast

James then spends a little time contrasting whose will it is you are actually performing.  If you are watching a sports event with friends, unless you are witnessing to them about Christ at period breaks, and even then, I’m fairly confident you’re performing what you want, and not what the Lord wants for you.

This can be a complicated issue.  Let me see if I can give a personal example.  Nowhere in Scripture is there an instruction that says Gerry will marry Susan and have three children.  Yet, as believers, we were and are both convinced that God’s will for us was to marry and let Him run the show after that.  And we have three children, two of whom have made professions of faith in prayer to God in front of me, and one who says he believes, but wants to “cross that bridge when he comes to it,” which is a worrying strategy for me, and he knows that, but also isn’t the point.  I did not know until God revealed it to me very clearly through circumstance that Susan was to be my wife.  And even then, I asked for some clarification because I didn’t want to make a mistake and screw up both of our lives. 

People face things like this as Christians.  Do I get a job and support my family, or do I become a pastor?  Well, if the answer is an either/or scenario, you might want to just get a job and support your family.  But then the Lord showed me that I could do both!  Even with all the health problems, the Lord’s way of keeping me humbly relying on Him for daily strength!  James in this section lays down some principles for how to find the will of God and do it as opposed to your will.

5:7-20 – The Point:  To Turn Ourselves and Others to the Truth

In this last section of the letter, James makes his point.  All of these things that we are going through have the ultimate purpose of turning us to the Truth, and not just any truth, but the Truth as it is in Jesus, the only Truth that actually matters.  Any other context diminishes the truth in general.  We are turning to the truth continually, and living in the light of actual reality, not some spun narrative [by definition, an ACTUAL CONSPIRACY THEORY] in the form of some emergency or other.  When narratives begin to defy reality, they should crumble.  When they don’t, it is because something or someone is propping it up falsely, and you can just bet they have a self-centered agenda that goes with it.  THAT’S a conspiracy theory.  Not speaking about a failed narrative in the light of truth as it is found in Christ.  We need to learn and practice that difference–quietly so as not to cast our valuables before people that will not appreciate it, which is the real meaning of the proverb Jesus gave us involving pearls and swine.

As we are turned to the truth, it is then that WE are able to speak that reality to others in an effort to turn THEM to the truth as it is in Jesus.  The best way to do that is to know and speak the gospel, because it is in keeping with the very last verse of the letter:  “…let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

That’s a short overview, but as accurate as I can make it in the time we have.  Over the next few weeks, it is my intention to break this letter into the sections that I have outlined in this breakdown, and to use those sections for study instead of the normal chapter divisions, which as we know, are not divinely inspired.  In fact, they were added in the 1300s to make it easier to be precise in referring to certain passages, and the verse divisions were added about 300 years after that to give further precision.  My divisions are not divinely inspired either, it is just a convenient way for me to divide the subject matter for easier and more detailed study.

That’s what I saw this time through the book of James.

Notes: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII

Video: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII