Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New TestamentJames 1
Oesterley thought that "For the most part this epistle is a collection of independent sayings"; F1 but the viewpoint advocated here is that every portion of it fit beautifully and appropriately into the one theme of "Perfection" which ties every word of it into a cohesive whole. This theme was stated at the outset (James 1:4), thus: "That ye may be perfect and entire, lacking in nothing." In this chapter, the following requirements for those who would be perfect are advocated: (1) be joyful in trials (James 1:2-4); (2) in ignorance and uncertainties, let the Christian pray in faith without doubting (James 1:5-8); (3) in economic disparities, the rich and the poor alike are to rejoice at their new status in Christ (James 1:9-11); (4) God is not to be blamed for temptations, but the source of temptation must be recognized as lying within Christians themselves; (5) anger and wrath are to be suppressed (James 1:19-20); and (6) it is not hearing God's word but the hearing and doing of it that lead to perfection (James 1:21-27).
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion, greeting.
The manner in which James here bracketed the names of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ carries the affirmation of the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Lord taught that "no man can serve two masters" (Matthew 6:24); and, in James' affirmation here, he did not mean that he had two masters, but that the two are one. The very use of the title "Lord" in the New Testament denotes this, the same being the "title given to the early Roman emperors to denote their deity." F2
Servant of God ...
Paul, Timothy, Peter, Jude, and Epaphras were all so designated, the New Testament word for each being [Greek: doulos], meaning "one born into slavery"; thus every such usage of it indicates that such a servant was a "born again" Christian. The Old Testament Hebrew word for "servant" was the title by which "the greatest ones of the Old Testament were known." F3 Moses, Caleb, Joshua, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Job, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zechariah were all called "servants of God." However, it is wrong to make this fact the basis of identifying James with the Old Testament prophets. Paul also repeatedly referred to himself as the [Greek: doulos] of God and of Jesus (Romans 1:1); and both Paul and James belong to the New Testament, not to the Old Testament.
To the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion ...
This is an unfortunate rendition because of the capitalization of "Dispersion," making it a technical term for the Jewish people. This epistle is not written to the Jews, in the sense of racial Jews. The address of those to receive this letter as "brethren" in the very next verse proves this. "The twelve tribes" is here a reference to the spiritual Israel of God, that is, the Christians of all ages. In this very first verse, James followed the same pattern that occurs repeatedly throughout the letter, in which the words of Jesus Christ dominate every line of it. It was Christ who promised the apostles that they would "sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matthew 19:28); and James here used exactly the same terminology to describe the church of Jesus Christ. Wessel declared that "This is a symbolical designation of the Christian church." F4 Harper agreed that "The words here include the whole of spiritual Israel, i.e., all Christians everywhere." F5 Barnes likewise noted that "The phrase, `the twelve tribes' became a sort of technical expression to denote the people of God, the church." F6 This epistle, therefore, should be understood as inspired instructions to Christians, and the efforts of some to write it off as a mere appeal to racial Jews should be resolutely resisted. Paul frequently used "Israel" as a designation of the Christian community, the true children of Abraham; and James did exactly the same thing here. Morgan said that "There are more references to the Sermon on the Mount in James than in all the other New Testament letters put together." F7 It is not surprising, therefore, that in this very first verse James employed the terminology used by our Lord.
Count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into manifold temptations;
Count it all joy ...
Did not Christ say, "Blessed are ye when men shall persecute you ... rejoice and be exceeding glad"? (Matthew 5:11,12). This is exactly the thought of James here.
Manifold temptations ...
Although the same word is used in James 1:12, below, it is the inner propensity toward evil that is meant there, outward trials and hardships being the thing in focus here. Wessel stated that "The word [Greek: pietrasmos] (trials) has two meanings: external adversities here, and inner impulse to evil in James 1:12-14 F8
James could not have meant here that Christians are "to pretend that they get joy out of things which are disagreeable, for that would be an act of insincerity." F9 "The true view of temptation or trial is that it is an opportunity to gain new strength through overcoming." F10
My brethren ...
This expression occurs "sixteen times" F11 in the book of James, absolutely demanding that the letter be accepted as Christian. When James wrote, secular Israel had long ago hardened into unyielding opposition to Christianity; and there is no way to suppose that the racial Jews of the Dispersion are meant by this repeated appeal to "my brethren." If James had been directed to the Diaspora, it most certainly would have included a section hailing Jesus Christ as the Messiah; but the addressees of this epistle were already Christians.
... knowing that the proving of your faith worketh patience.
This and the following verse (James 1:4) give the theme of the whole letter, which may be variously expressed as "The Testing of Faith," or "Christian Perfection."
The proving of your faith ...
This would be better translated if rendered "the testing" of your faith. F12 Abraham, the father of the faithful was tested; and it is a foregone certainty that none of the spiritual children of Abraham may expect otherwise than that their faith also will be tested. The testing begins with the Lord's commandment for believers to be baptized (Mark 16:15,16), and some never even pass that test. However, the testing never ends at the baptistery. Throughout life with its trials and hardships the testing goes on and on.
Worketh patience ...
James continues to reflect perfectly the words of Jesus Christ who said, "In your patience ye shall possess your souls" (Luke 21:19), the same also being true of the writings of Paul. Barnes said, "This is one of the passages that show that James was acquainted with the writings of Paul (Romans 5:3)." F13 The meaning of "patience" here is that of courageous endurance, and not merely docile submission.
And let patience have its perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking in nothing.
That ye may be perfect ...
It is a gross error to read "perfect" as used in the New Testament as if it meant "maturity." This is exactly the word that Jesus Christ our Lord used of the heavenly Father himself (Matthew 5:48), where Christ commanded, "Be ye therefore perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." Nothing short of absolute perfection shall ever inherit eternal life; and, while it is freely admitted that no man may achieve such perfection, it is nevertheless available to all men who will receive the gospel, be baptized into Christ, and thus become partakers of the heavenly perfection of the Saviour himself. See the dissertation on "The Perfection of Christians" in my Commentary on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, pp. 120-124. This is the theme of the whole epistle of James, all of its various instructions fitting into the category of what is required for perfection. Implicit in the admonitions of this epistle is that Christians must do their very best to achieve whatever degree of perfection is possible, whatever is lacking to be made up by Christ himself (and there will always be something lacking in every Christian). Dummelow and many others insist upon reading "perfect and entire" as "full grown and complete"; F14 but it would be impossible to speak of God as "full grown"! The meaning here is "perfection," which is exactly what the text says. It is believed that the reason why so many are unwilling to accept this obvious meaning lies in their failure to understand how the total perfection of Christ becomes the inheritance of all who are truly "in Christ." See Col. 1:28. It is certain that James understood this; and his entire letter is directed to the admonition that the Christian should not presume that Christ's perfection would be bestowed upon Christians who trusted a subjective trust/faith alone to procure such a status, or who might fail in any manner of doing everything within their power to honor "the perfection in Christ" through their constant imitation of it. The testing of the Christian's faith by various external trials, as in this verse and the preceding verse, carries the inherent message that the Christian must pass such tests. If in his sincerely trying to do so, the Christian should nevertheless fail, Christ in that extremity will surely provide what is lacking.
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.
Oesterley said, "There is no thought connection between this verse and the preceding"; F15 but such a comment is due to a failure to discern the theme of the epistle, which is "Perfection," one of the most common impediments to perfection being ignorance. It is the word of God only which is able to make one "wise unto salvation"; and, without doubt, James' reference to persons "lacking wisdom" meant a lack of knowledge of divine truth. There is no hint whatever in this passage that one may pray for wisdom in mathematics or physics and that God will "give" wisdom in such categories as those. Furthermore, there is no promise here to the effect that God will supernaturally endow the man praying for wisdom even with the knowledge of the word of God. As was the case with Timothy, all Christians are commanded to "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, etc." (2 Timothy 2:15). What is promised here is that for the true seeker of divine truth as it regards human salvation, if he shall indeed seek it in that word which liveth and abideth forever, God will surely give him liberally of all that is necessary for him to know. As Lenski said it:
God has his means for giving
additional wisdom. This is his word.
Wisdom does not come down out of the
sky. God's Spirit instructs,
enlightens, makes wise by means of the
word. This angle of the matter James
takes up again in James 1:21. F16
Barclay also discerned that the wisdom promised here is not wisdom of any secular subject, but "the supreme and divine quality of the soul whereby man knows and practices righteousness." F17
Before leaving this verse, it is appropriate again to notice that James' teaching regards with utmost fidelity that of the Christ himself, who said, "How much more shall your Father who is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?" (Matthew 7:11).
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.
Again, James gives the teaching of Christ, who said, "Whatsoever ye pray and ask for, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them" (Mark 11:24).
Therefore, it is not merely faith in God which James had in view here, but faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He was writing to Christians who, like himself, were servants of God and of Jesus Christ; and he had already mentioned their common faith a moment earlier in James 1:3. Modern exegetes who limit faith in the book of James to the mere belief in God are absolutely wrong. As Lenski said, "The older commentators who understood `in faith' to mean faith in Jesus Christ' are correct." F18
He that doubteth is like the surge of the sea ...
Not only does the doubter forfeit all legitimate expectation that his prayers may be answered, but something else appears in this verse, namely, that that one who is a wavering Christian, or unfaithful in the area of his highest responsibility, will also prove to be unstable and undependable in all other areas likewise. Many a man's forsaking the church has been the forerunner of his deserting his family, embezzling company funds, or plunging into a life of licentiousness.
For let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord;
A firm and unwavering faith in God and in Christ Jesus underlies every Christian hope, every gospel promise. Waverers must inevitably forfeit their enrollment among the saints in light.
The Lord ...
Many current commentators make the mistake of applying these words to the Father. As noted in the introduction, however, it is the Lord Jesus Christ who is meant. Lenski has this comment:
After James used "Lord" with reference
to Christ in James 1:1, and repeatedly
in other chapters, we see no reason
for making "Lord" mean "God" here ...
In James 5:4, James used "Lord" for
"God," but in a combination "Lord
Sabaoth." Elsewhere, he writes "God"
when he refers to "God." F19
... a doubleminded man, unstable in all his ways.
Two things of very great importance are evidenced by this short verse. In the first place, as Dummelow suggested, "It refers to the teaching of Christ in Matthew 6:24"; F20 thus being in perfect consonance with practically everything else in the book of James.
Secondly, "doubleminded" is a word evidently coined by the author of this epistle, because it is found in no other work prior to this. F21 Significantly, Clement of Rome (95 A.D.) quoted from this passage in his First Letter to the Corinthians, thus: "Wretched are they who are of a double mind, and of a doubting heart." F22 As Lenski said, this word caught on, and writers afterward frequently used it. "It is used often after the time of James as if it caught men's fancy." F23
For further comment on the fact of such doublemindedness with regard to sacred things being manifested in other areas of life also, see under James 1:6.
But let the brother of low degree glory in his high estate:
Brother of low degree ...
This refers to the poor, the slave, the bottom of the social ladder; and the perfection which may be attained by any such disadvantaged person is achieved in his realization of his exalted status as a Christian. Christianity brings to every man what he needs ... the despised poor learn self-respect ... the proud rich learn self-abasement." F24 The perfection in Christ Jesus exalts the brother of low degree and brings a healing humility to the mighty and the proud. The gospel if given free course in the lives of men will lead to perfection. "It elevates the poor under his depression, and humbles the rich in his elevation." F25
... and the rich in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.
Gibson and others are reluctant to receive the rich man in view here as a Christian brother. "The rich are never elsewhere spoken of as brothers in this epistle." F26 Nevertheless, the expression "brethren" is used sixteen times in this letter, and all who were mentioned (except in James 4:7-10; 4:7-10 and in 5:1-6) fall under the blanket inclusion of that endearing address. How could it be supposed that James was addressing rich unbelievers? It seems mandatory then to accept the rich of this passage as rich Christians. What James did here with reference to the rich and the poor is exactly the same thing that Paul did with regard to slaves and masters. Barnes' comment on this is:
Paul beautifully balances the
respective conditions of slaves and
freemen, by honoring the former with
the appellation of the Lord's freeman,
and imposing on the latter that of
Christ's servants (1 Corinthians 7:22). F27
As the flower of the grass he shall pass away ...
Christ also used the metaphor of the grass to describe the ephemeral quality of life on earth (Matthew 6:20); and there can be little doubt that James had in mind the very words of Jesus in the comparison written here. Whatever riches may be acquired, whatever power may be grasped, whatever glory may come to life, whatever eminence, popularity and fame may shine upon anyone, it is all over in a moment of time. The perfection of the rich is therefore attained through his acceptance of that glory which pertains to the "poor in spirit," even during that time when, in the eyes of the world, he may still be rich. The sentiment of this passage echoes the words of Jesus (Matthew 5:3).
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.
This verse is a simple statement of truth regarding all of the rich and mighty of this world. All that is said here of the rich man is likewise true of the poor man; but it is especially the rich and powerful who need this admonition, the same being noted here as further persuasion for the rich brethren to become "poor in spirit." Some take a different view; but as Carson said:
Some take the "rich" to refer to the
unbeliever; but the meaning is
unsatisfactory, e.g., "let the rich
man if he will glory in his
degradation," the words being
Before leaving this beautiful simile drawn from natural phenomena, it is appropriate to observe that James particularly appreciated such comparisons, using quite a number of them, as follows: "surge of the sea" (James 1:6); "flower of the grass" (James 1:10), "rough winds" (James 3:4), "much wood ... kindled by small fire" (James 3:5), "the wheel of nature" (James 3:6), "beasts and birds" (James 3:7), "the fountain" (James 3:11), "a fig tree" (James 3:12), "the early and latter rain" (James 5:7), etc.
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.
Blessed is the man that endureth temptation ...
We noted under James 1:2, that "temptation" has a double meaning, that of external trials, and inward tendency to evil; but Lenski did not accept such a distinction. He said, "Both linguistically, and in thought, James 1:12 is to be associated with James 1:2-4." F29 If, as Lenski thought, external trials are meant here also, then this verse is parallel to Matthew 5:10,11. As Barnes said, "The word `temptation' is in itself a word of so general a character as to cover the whole usage." F30
When he hath been approved ...
"When he has been tested" is included in the meaning here, and with the additional thought of "when he has stood the test." F31
The crown of life ...
Barclay viewed the crown of life promised here as "a new kind of living which is life indeed," F32 but such a view falls far short of that which is promised. Regardless of all the spiritual emoluments of Christian living, despite the glory and dignity of faith in the present life, and after taking full account of all the joys of Christian service, all the victories of the abundant life in Christ, "If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable" (1 Corinthians 15:19). What is promised here, of course, is eternal life. "The crown of life" mentioned by James here cannot be anything other than the "crown of righteousness" mentioned by Paul in 2 Timothy 4:8, and which in no sense is awarded in the present existence, but which will be bestowed "at that day" by the Lord Jesus Christ upon all them that have loved his appearing. The clauses which tie the two passages together are: "the Lord promised to them that love him," and "to them that have loved his appearing."
The Lord ...
These words were supplied by the translators; but that it is the Lord Jesus Christ who promised eternal life is a truth already known to every Christian, hence there was no need to spell it out here. "James does not need to name the Lord as being the one who promised the crown to those who love him; his readers know that it is the Lord." F33 Paul mentioned the "incorruptible crown" (1 Corinthians 9:25) and the "crown of righteousness" (1 Timothy 4:8); Peter spoke of "the crown of glory that fadeth not away" (1 Peter 5:4); and John wrote, "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life" (Revelation 2:10). In each of these references, it is clear enough that the one giving the crown is the Lord Jesus Christ, that it is a crown to be awarded at the final day, and that it is not awarded in the present earthly life. Moreover, it is only one crown which will be awarded, hence all of these various references to it are applicable to that one crown.
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:
The purpose of this verse is to take away from men any excuse for their yielding to sin. There is not any need for the commentators to dig up references in the Talmud, or in Wisdom, or in Sirach, or in mythology for something which might have led to James' inclusion of this admonition. The book of Genesis records the fact of Adam's blaming Eve for his sin, with the implied element of blaming God also, "the woman thou gavest me"; and from that day until now, man has loved to blame the Creator for all of his troubles. And yet it is a fact that God allows temptation. Punchard has this regarding God's use of temptation:
Trials and temptations are permitted
to strengthen us, if we will, for
God's mightier service. Compulsory
homage would be worthless to the
loving Lord of all; so voluntary must
be found instead, and proved, and
perfected. Herein is the Christian's
conflict, and the secret of God's ways
with men. F34
There are all kinds of ways of shifting the blame to God. After all, did not God create those fleshly appetites which we seek to control; are we not surrounded from the very beginning of life with all kinds of temptations; and did not God make all of these things which tempt me? James' words here were given for the purpose of destroying such fallacious reasoning. Surely, of all the evil doctrines ever advanced by Satan, that of blaming God himself for human transgression must be one of the worst.
... but each man is tempted, when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed.
The seat of all wrong-doing lies in human selfishness. As long as men seek only what pleases them, what they desire, what they crave, what gratifies them, that lust, which seeks the fulfillment of such desires, motivates all the sin on earth. Herein lies the basic conflict involved in spiritual living. Man's ego must be suppressed, denied, and brought under subjection to the will of God. In instances where this is never done, sin reigns in men's lives. From this it is clear that within men themselves are all of the propensities leading to sin.
Drawn away ... and enticed ...
"These are primarily hunting and fishing words, used metaphorically here." F35 It was the beauty of the forbidden fruit that acted as a lure for Eve, the bait, which effected her being caught upon the hook of sin. Christians should learn to exercise skill in rejecting the alluring "bait" with which Satan baits his trap of enslavement to sin.
Then the lust, when it hath conceived, beareth sin: and the sin, when it is fullgrown, bringeth forth death.
This is one of the boldest and most dramatic metaphors in the Bible. Restated, it means lust has a child named sin; and sin, as soon as it grows up, has a baby named death! Barclay noted that "The word here translated `bringeth forth' is an animal word for birth; and it means that sin spawns death." F36
When man permits his natural desires to dominate his life, he becomes less than a man and sinks to the level of the brute creation. The teaching of this verse is identical with that of Paul who wrote, "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23).
Verses 16, 17
Be not deceived, my beloved brethren. 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.
Be not deceived ...
Inherent in this is the fact that it is just possible now for men to be deceived through the allurements of sin as it was when Eve was tempted in Eden. The great temptation in all sin is to be deceived into thinking that, after all, it will not prove to be as bad as God declared it to be. Eve found to the sorrow of herself and her posterity forever that it was altogether as evil and disastrous as God promised.
The Father of lights ...
What are the lights here? It might be thought that the light of intelligence, the light of truth, the light of the world who is Christ, or the physical lights of the heavens, such as the sun, moon and stars, are meant. But there is no need to restrict the meaning here at all. "It is not amiss to take the whole of these interpretations," F37 because God is the source of every kind of light. The almost scientific words of this verse, however, would seem to show that James was particularly thinking of the heavenly bodies, the sun, moon and stars. He used the words [Greek: parallage] and [Greek: trope] F38 "Both these words have to do with the variation which the heavenly bodies show." F39 Such things as the apparent movement of the sun around the earth, giving day and night, or its moving southward or northward, giving the seasons, and many other variations are suggested by these words. By contrast, "there is no variation with God." In him, "there is no shadow cast by turning." "I Jehovah change not" (Malachi 3:6).
In the current era, men have been concerned by what they are able to hurl into space, such as orbiting satellites and space stations; but it is not by anything that men may hurl upward that they may expect redemption, for "every good gift" comes down from God. This author has some sacred memories connected with these words from James in this verse. His father always addressed the heavenly Father in prayer, using the terminology written here.
Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
"It seems at first sight natural to see in this verse a reference to the new birth in baptism, or to the regenerating power of the gospel (1 Peter 1:23)"; F40 and in spite of the fact that Dummelow went on to reject the obvious meaning upon the pretext that "such ideas are foreign to the simplicity of St. James' theological thought!" F41 it is far better to receive the passage as a plain reference to that salvation which results from hearing and obeying the gospel. After all, that is the simple meaning. As Carson said: "Some have applied the words to creation, but `begetting' and `word of truth' are rather the language of the gospel." F42 Gibson also wrote: "Compare with 1 Pet. 1:23, where, as here, the new birth is connected with the word of God." F43 One may only marvel at the blindness which sees in this passage some reference to "the Jews who taught that they were the children of God by the Torah. F44 It is the holy gospel of Christ that shines in this passage. "`The word of truth' is understood to be the word of the gospel," F45 and it is absolutely certain that the new birth is the subject of this passage.
That we should be a kind of firstfruits ...
Here again, James corresponds with Paul. In 2 Thessalonians (margin), Paul wrote, "God chose you as firstfruits" (2 Thessalonians 2:13). "These early Christians were called `firstfruits' because they were a guarantee of many more to come." F46
Ye know this, my beloved brethren. But let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:
The Christian who would strive for perfection has a real problem with his tongue, a subject James would give fuller treatment later in the epistle. The admonition to be "slow to wrath" was given by Paul thus, "Let not the sun go down upon your wrath" (Ephesians 4:26), the same being also condemned by him in a number of other passages: 2 Cor. 12:20, Gal. 5:20, Col. 3:8, Eph. 4:31, etc. "If we treat men according to the first promptings of anger, we shall always do them wrong." F47
... for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.
It is the proud man, the conceited man, who is easily made angry, so cultivate a low opinion of yourself." F48 All men should be like that person, who when told of some very derogatory remarks an acquaintance had spoken against him, replied, "Why that is nothing new; all that, and more, I said to God this morning on my knees." F49
"The particular meaning of this passage is that wrath in the mind of man will not have any tendency to make him righteous." F50
Wherefore putting away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
Putting away ...
Paul also used this word in such passages as "putting away lying" (Ephesians 4:25), "when I became a man, I put away childish things" (1 Corinthians 13:11), etc.
Overflowing of wickedness ...
"This is not to be understood as `more than is necessary'; because wickedness in the smallest measure is already excess." F51
The implanted word ... able to save your souls ...
As Gibson observed, "James' teaching here is almost like a reminiscence of the parable of the sower." F52 "The seed is the word of God" (Luke 8:11). Inherent in this teaching is the fact of men being saved through the hearing and the obeying of the word of God.
Before the implanted word can bring salvation to the soul, wickedness must be laid aside; and, as Zerr put it: "`Laying aside wickedness' means that the man must himself do it and not wait for God to work some special influence on him." F53
The implanted word
in this place suggests the indwelling Spirit, the indwelling Christ, etc. Paul also commanded that the "word of Christ" should dwell in Christians (Colossians 3:16).
But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves.
This is exactly the teaching of Paul in Rom. 2:13; and taken together with what James would write in the second chapter, it is clear enough that this epistle was written for the purpose of correcting the abuse of Paul's teaching regarding justification by faith. By this reference, James almost says, "My teaching is exactly what the apostle Paul really taught." "Not the hearers of the law, but the doers of the law shall be justified" (Romans 2:13). The passage in Romans has a primary application to doing the law of Moses, but by his declaration here, James showed that the same principle is applicable to Christians with respect to the law of Jesus Christ, a law which James would mention in the next line.
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:
Hearer of the word ...
The expression "the word," as used in New Testament times, is always a designation of the Christian gospel.
The hearers who do not do are here compared to a man who glances at himself in a mirror and then goes away without making any move to cleanse his face. He just forgets all about what he might have seen, going on exactly as he was before.
... for he beholdeth himself, and goeth away, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.
As Lenski said, "This is the same picture that is drawn by Jesus in a different way in Matt. 13:4,19. The little birds just carried away the good seed." F54 Those who hear God's word and then simply forget to do anything about it are the persons meant.
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.
Contrasted with the man who merely "glances" in a mirror the person looking into the perfect law of liberty is represented as "continuing to do so," a mere glance being insufficient.
Gibson said that "The conception of the gospel as a law is characteristic of James"; F55 but that conception was also that of the apostle Paul who wrote, "Do we then make law of none effect through faith? God forbid: nay, we establish law" (Romans 3:31), also, "And so fulfil the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2).
The perfect law ...
It is impossible, logically, to refer this to the Law of Moses; because the writer of Hebrews declared that "If the first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second; for finding fault with them ... he saith I will make a new covenant" (Hebrews 8:8). True the Psalmist declared that "The law of the Lord is perfect" (Psalms 19:7); but that passage is doubtless a prophecy of the new covenant.
The law of liberty ...
Even less is there any excuse for making out that this may be applied to the law of Moses, for an apostle said of Moses' law that "It is a yoke of bondage which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear". The Mosaic law was slavery; the law of Christ is a perfect law of liberty. Whereas the law of Moses could not make its adherents perfect (Hebrews 7:19), the law of Christ leads to the absolute perfection of the redeemed in Christ (Colossians 1:28, etc.)
The view is also erroneous that would make "the law of Christ" spoken of in this passage to be merely "the ethical side of Christianity." F56 All that Christ commanded is part of his law.
Regarding the perfect law of liberty presented in this remarkable passage, it should ever be remembered that this is the same as the law established by faith (Romans 3:31), the same as the "law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2), and the same as "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:2). And what is this wonderful law? "I have no hesitation in answering: it is the gospel ... the gospel is a law; let none be alarmed." F57
If any man thinketh himself to be religious, while he bridleth not his tongue but deceiveth his heart, this man's religion is vain.
It is clear from this that James was addressing this letter to self-deceived people who in some manner had accepted the proposition that they were saved without reference to the practice of true Christianity. What was their fallacy? It could well have been that of imagining that they were "saved through faith only." That they were indeed believers is perfectly clear from the fact that they thought they were religious and were deceived into thinking that their conduct was unrelated to their salvation.
Harper quoted an interesting paraphrase of this verse from Living Letters thus: "If anyone says he is a Christian, but doesn't control his sharp tongue, he is just fooling himself, and his religion isn't worth much." F58
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.
Some commentators make a big point of saying that James was here contrasting Christian behavior with external acts of religion, such as taking the Lord's supper; but this is not the case at all. Christianity also includes doing that, and everything else that Christ commanded. As Jesus put it in the Great Commission, "teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:18-20). The true Christianity does not attempt to avoid this requirement imposed by the Son of God himself.
Again, in this verse, there is evident the influence of the teachings of Jesus Christ. As Lenski noted, "It seems as though James has in mind Matthew 23:14, Luke 20:47, where is mentioned the hypocritical Pharisees who devoured widows' houses and for a pretense made long prayers." F59
Lenski also pointed out that certain rationalists point to this passage as teaching their kind of religion: "Just do good and lead a clean moral life; the rest doesn't matter." F60 This is just as reasonable, however, as making Paul's "saved by faith" to mean "saved by faith alone." In both cases, the synecdoche is ignored. James did not here limit true religion to concern for the fatherless and the widows, but he made these two to be a figure including the totality of Christian obligation. Still, implicit in such a synecdoche is the fact of charity to widows and orphans being a vital and necessary part of Christian service.
And to keep oneself unspotted from the world ...
The meaning of this was accurately presented by Zerr, thus: "`Unspotted from the world' means to be free from the vices commonly practiced by mankind." F61
Footnotes for James 1
1: W. E. Oesterley, The Expositor's Greek Testament, Vol. IV (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), p. 408.
2: Ibid., p. 419.
3: A. F. Harper, Beacon Bible Commentary, Vol. X (Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press, 1967), p. 193.
4: William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), p. 35.
5: Walter W. Wessel, The Wycliffe New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 945.
6: Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament, James (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1953), p. 17.
7: G. Campbell Morgan, The Unfolding Message of the Bible (Old Tappan, New Jersey: The Fleming H. Revell Company, 1941), p. 382.
8: Walter W. Wessell, op. cit., p. 946.
9: E. M. Zerr, Bible Commentary, James (Marion, Indiana: The Cogdill Foundation, 1954), p. 241.
10: James William Russell, Compact Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1964), p. 571.
11: Walter W. Wessell, op. cit., p. 945.
12: R. C. H. Lenski, Interpretations of the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistle to James (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1954), p. 525.
13: Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 17.
14: J. R. Dummelow, One Volume Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 1034.
15: W. E. Oesterley, op. cit., p. 422.
16: R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 529.
17: William Barclay, op. cit., p. 45.
18: R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 530.
19: R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 532.
20: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 1034.
21: R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 532.
22: Clement of Rome, The First Epistle of Clement, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1920), Vol. 1, p. 11.
23: R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 532.
24: William Barclay, op. cit., p. 47.
25: Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 22.
26: E. C. S. Gibson, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 21, James (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 3.
27: Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 22.
28: T. Carson, A New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969), p. 572.
29: R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 536.
30: Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 23.
31: T. Carson, op. cit., p. 572.
32: William Barclay, op. cit., p. 49.
33: R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 538.
34: E. G. Punchard, Ellicott's Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. VIII (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), on James, p. 359.
35: Walter W. Wessel, op. cit., p. 947.
36: William Barclay, op. cit., p. 53.
37: E. G. Punchard, op. cit., p. 359.
38: William Barclay, op. cit., p. 54.
40: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 1034.
42: T. Carson, op. cit., p. 573.
43: E. C. S. Gibson, op. cit., p. 4.
44: W. E. Oesterley, op. cit., p. 433.
45: A. F. Harper, op. cit., p. 203.
46: Walter W. Wessel, op. cit., p. 948.
47: A. W. Momerie, Biblical Illustrator (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1937), p. 147.
48: A. Whyte, Biblical Illustrator (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1937), p. 148.
50: Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 30.
51: A. F. Harper, op. cit., p. 205.
52: E. C. S. Gibson, op. cit., p. 5.
53: E. M. Zerr, op. cit., p. 243.
54: R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 556.
55: E. C. S. Gibson, op. cit., p. 5.
56: Walter W. Wessel, op. cit., p. 949.
57: R. Wardlaw, Biblical Illustrator, op. cit., p. 186.
58: A. F. Harper, op. cit., p. 207.
59: R. C. H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 560.
60: Ibid., p. 561.
61: E. M. Zerr, op. cit., p. 244.
62: William Hendriksen, op. cit., p. 141.
63: Ibid., p. 143.
64: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 974.
65: Robert H. Mounce, op. cit., p. 769.
66: William Barclay, op. cit., p. 50.
67: Ibid., p. 48.