Introduction to James
This first of the general epistles was written by James, who had become the acknowledged leader of the Jerusalem church. He presided at the Jerusalem council of Acts 15, and was identified as the one from whom certain men had been sent to Antioch (Galatians 2:12). Paul reported to James in Acts 21:18-19.
James could not have been the brother of John and son of Zebedee, of course, for that James had been martyred (Acts 12:2). In fact, Paul called him “the Lord’s brother” in Galatians 1:19, thus identifying him as one of the half-brothers of Jesus (see Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). As such, he did not believe on Christ until after His resurrection (John 7:5), but then the risen Christ met him (I Corinthians 15:7) and this was apparently when he was converted. He and his brothers were with Mary and the apostles in the upper room (Acts 1:13-14). He quickly rose to a position of leadership, particularly after the apostles began to preach in other regions. Paul said, in Galatians 2:9, that “James, Cephas, and John” were “pillars” of the Jerusalem church. When Peter was miraculously delivered from prison, he told those who had been praying for him to report the event to James (Acts 12:17).
The epistle of James, like those of Peter and the book of Hebrews, was written to the Christian Jews of the “dispersion”—that is, those away from Jerusalem and scattered around the Roman empire. Although he himself stayed in Jerusalem (and, according to Josephus, was martyred there in A.D. 62), he felt an obligation to all other believing Jews, wherever they were. The letter was apparently written as a general letter to be circulated or copied wherever such believers could be found.
It was probably the very earliest epistle, obviously written before the Jerusalem council of Acts 15, and probably before any of Paul’s epistles. It was certainly important, James realized, that these young Christians should have some written guidelines. Therefore, James undertook the task. It is a fascinating testimony to God’s grace that James, who had been an unbelieving brother of Jesus, was chosen to write the first inspired book to believing Jews, and Paul, the chief persecutor of the early church, was chosen to write the first epistle to believing Gentiles.
James stresses the necessity of good works as evidence of saving faith (James 2:14-26), but he also is very clear that works in themselves do not suffice for salvation (James 1:15; 2:10; 4:17), for no one is without sin. He also recognizes the deity of Christ (James 2:1), the new birth (James 1:18,21) through God’s Word, and the promised second coming of Christ (James 5:8).
1:1 James. James was prominent in the early Jerusalem church, one of the “pillars” along with Peter and John (Galatians 2:9). He was one whom the Lord Jesus went to see after His resurrection (I Corinthians 15:7).
1:1 Jesus Christ. James is called “the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19), and is apparently the one mentioned in Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55 as the first of four “brethren” of Jesus who were sons of Mary. He became the presiding elder in the church at Jerusalem (compare Acts 15:13; 21:18). Because of such credentials, one might expect his epistle to have more personal references, but he only identifies himself in this one verse, as a “bondservant” of the Lord Jesus Christ. He and his brothers did not believe in Jesus during His earthly ministry (John 7:5), and they were not with Mary at the cross (John 19:26). Later, however, possibly as a result of James’ encounter with the Lord after His resurrection, they were converted (I Corinthians 15:7), and were with their mother in the upper room as all the disciples were awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14). James, then, quickly became a leader in the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:17). One of the other brothers, Jude, also became a leader (Jude 1), writing the New Testament epistle that bears his name.
1:1 scattered abroad. James was writing to his Jewish brethren who were “scattered abroad” in the dispersion. They may well have included many of those he had met on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came, and the 120 disciples (Acts 1:15) were supernaturally endowed with ability to proclaim “the wonderful works of God” to those Jews who had come to Jerusalem for the feast “out of every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:4-6,11). Many of these were converted (Acts 2:41), and all were profoundly stirred. When James became leader of the Jewish church in Jerusalem, he no doubt was also greatly concerned with all those Jews who had returned to their homes in various countries, both those who had professed faith in Christ and those who were still undecided. His epistle was addressed to both these groups. It reveals a keen awareness of the Jewish law and its true implications, as well as the earthly ministry of Jesus. It seems to have been the first written of the New Testament epistles, written even before the council met in Jerusalem to decide the proper way to deal with Gentile Christians (Acts 15), since there is little, if any, mention of this question in the epistle.
1:1 greeting. An incidental confirmation that the epistle of James was written by the same James who presided at the Jerusalem council is the fact that both begin with the word “greeting” (Acts 15:23), a term not used by writers of the other New Testament epistles.
1:2 temptations. The “temptations” that were coming were actually “testings.” James realized that persecutions would inevitably reach these Jewish Christians, and wanted to help them prepare for them. They had already been severe in Jerusalem. Stephen had been slain (Acts 7:59-60), as had James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John (Acts 12:1-2) and, no doubt, others. According to the historian Josephus, James himself, author of the epistle, was executed in A.D. 62.
1:5 lack wisdom. When a believer prays for wisdom, he must remember that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10) and that in Christ “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). The wisdom that God provides in answer to prayer must always be in accordance with His Word.
1:12 crown of life. On the “crown of life,” see also Revelation 2:10, where persecuted overcomers in Smyrna-type churches are also promised “the crown of life.”
1:13 God cannot be tempted. Since Jesus was God, and did not cease being God when He also became man, this statement assures us that Jesus not only did not sin, but also that He could not sin.
1:15 finished. The word used here for “finished” (Greek apoteleo) occurs only here. It is an emphatic word, implying an ultimate and final consummation. Thus sin, if allowed to continue without repentance and redemption, must result in eternal and irrevocable spiritual death.
1:17 Father of lights. God’s first recorded words were “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). He is the “Father of lights” but He did not create light, for “God is light” (I John 1:5), and is “dwelling in the light” (I Timothy 6:16). In fact, He had to “create darkness” but only had to “form the light” (Isaiah 45:7). Scientifically speaking, as far as the physical creation is concerned, all matter is essentially energy in motion, and light is the most basic form of energy.
1:17 no variableness. This attribute of the Father of lights—that is, no variableness—is suggested by the most basic and universal law of science, the law of conservation of energy. God can “form the light” into many different kinds of energy, but the total quantity is conserved, neither being augmented by creation nor decreased by annihilation. “Whatsoever God doeth, it shall be forever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).
1:17 shadow of turning. The word “turning” is from the Greek trope. When combined with the Greek for “in” (that is, en), it becomes entrope, which means in the Greek “confusion” or “shame.” We get our English word “entropy” from this source, which thus literally means “in-turning.” In science, any system which “turns in” on itself, without drawing on external sources of energy or information (in other words, a “closed system”) will experience an increase of entropy, or disorganization. This is, so far as all evidence goes, a universal principle of science, and seems to reflect God’s primeval curse on “the whole creation” (Romans 8:22). That is, even though all things are being conserved in quantity by God, they are deteriorating in quality, running down toward physical chaos and biological death. But God Himself, who imposed these laws on His creation, is not bound by them. There is not even a “shadow of turning” with Him!
1:18 word of truth. We are “born again” through the incorruptible “word of God” (I Peter 1:23; note also James 1:21; Ephesians 5:25-26).
1:18 firstfruits. See I Corinthians 15:20,23. Christ is Himself the “firstfruits” from among the dead, but among “His creatures,” we are His firstfruits. There may be also a suggestion here, since James was writing specifically to and about Jewish believers in Christ, that these were considered His firstfruits, with Gentiles coming later. Even Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, agreed that the gospel should be preached “to the Jews first” (Romans 1:16).
1:21 superfluity of naughtiness. Instead of “superfluity of naughtiness,” read “abundance of wickedness.”
1:21 engrafted. This is the only occurrence of the word; the basic meaning is probably “implanted.”
1:23 in a glass. Note also James 1:25. The Word of God is like a mirror, which enables us to see ourselves as we are. See also I Corinthians 13:12; II Corinthians 3:18.
1:26 seem to be religious. The Greek word for “religious” is used only here in the New Testament. It refers to an outward show of piety, and does not necessarily refer to Christianity.
1:27 Pure religion. The word for “religion” is related to the word for “religious” (see above note). This word is used only in James 1:26-27, with one significant exception. In Colossians 2:18 it is translated “worshipping,” but in connection not with worshipping God, but angels. Since angels who receive worship are actually fallen angels following Satan, it follows that “religion” and “religious” are used in the Bible only in relation to pagan religions. The Christian faith is never called a religion in Scripture.