Notes On The Epistle Of James

James addresses his epistle to the twelve tribes of Israel; but whilst owning the people that are beloved for the fathers’ sake, he takes the ground of faith. “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes.”

At the time this Epistle was written, the gospel, which was first preached in Judea, had produced great results amongst the Jews; many churches had been formed, multitudes of Jews had believed (Acts 21:20), and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith; Acts 6:7. In those early days the believing Jews still held to the old order of things, they were zealous of the law and some even offered sacrifices. Jerusalem itself was in a peculiar position; through the bringing in of Christianity and on account of the faith entrusted to the holy city at this the starting-time of the gospel, she was under fresh responsibility. But this privilege was lightly esteemed of her children, and was about to pass from her hands into those of the Gentiles. In the midst of these circumstances James, though having chiefly the believers in view, nevertheless writes his Epistle to the twelve tribes, the whole of Israel, giving a last warning before God severed the church from the Jewish system. James does not deal with Israel as Paul, who, when in conflict with the synagogue, would separate the disciples from it and at a distance continue the work of the gospel in favour of the Gentiles.

There is even a noticeable difference between the two apostles of the circumcision, namely, Peter and James, in the way in which they look upon Israel in their Epistles. Peter is occupied chiefly with the faithful remnant and views it in those who, among the Jews, had received the faith; he sees Israel only in this remnant, whilst James takes in the whole of the nation. Doubtless the faithful remnant therein comprised is the only living portion wherein the great truths of faith and life are realised, still James writes to the whole people. He looks upon the nation as under the favour of the promises of God, then being presented in the gospel.

As to doctrine, the Epistle of James sets forth as much as any other the great truths of the gospel of God; but it goes no farther than the first elements; we do not get unfolding of truth as in Paul. Nevertheless it does not follow that the things written in James are of less absolute authority. For instance, what more positive than this statement— “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creature?”

When reading these elements of the gospel, we are surprised at not finding therein all that the Spirit of adoption has revealed to us; but let us acknowledge that such unfoldings do not come within the scope of the Epistle, and moreover that the condition of those to whom it was written did not admit of such. If this Epistle does not shew all the riches of the revelation of the gospel, yet is it none the less useful as a girdle of righteousness, as a voice of warning which keeps the conscience awake. It requires that the faith and life of the Christian should be visible to the eyes of men by these effects. The Epistle of James is simple enough when we understand the circumstances of Christians in the midst of the Jews in those days when Christianity was not yet defined in all its points.

The level it maintains is that which may have been the moral state of the faithful in all ages; namely, God known by them according to His eternal truth, either outside or above the particular characteristics which the various revelations of Himself impressed upon them. Dispensations have differed, they have brought out in succession various characteristics of God; but God in Himself does not alter.

Chapter 1.

Verses 2-15. From the outset James lowers man, he puts him in a place of dependence upon God, he sees him submitted to the trial of faith. But trial works its results; it bears the fruit of patience; it leads to the prayer of faith; it causes us to value a low degree, and lastly, makes us worthy of the crown of life which the Lord hath promised to them that love Him.

Verse 4. “But let patience have her perfect work.” Patience sustains and enables us to wait according to God for the issue of the trial, without availing ourselves of speedy deliverance out of it, suggested by the flesh. For instance, Saul was not able to wait patiently.

Verse 5. “Let him ask of God.” When trial comes the first resource of the Christian, as also the first motion of the new man, is prayer. God always hears the prayer of His saints. Thus strengthened from above, the Christian is enabled to go through the trial in the spirit of obedience. In Gethsemane Christ prayed before being in the trial; then in obedience He took the cup from the Father’s hand. If we neglect prayer and the difficulties come upon us unawares, we enter into temptation and we fall. Peter slept when he should have prayed, drew the sword when he should have submitted, denied Jesus when he should have confessed Him. God “upbraideth not.” God gives without reproaching our state.

Verse 6. “Let him ask in faith.” God desires that we should cause our prayers to ascend in a spirit of confidence in His goodness.

Verses 9-11. A low degree is that in which alone God is willing to meet us in this world.

Verses 12-15. Trial (or temptation) may come to us from two sources: from God, when heart and faith are tested— “God tempted Abraham”; from the adversary when it reaches us through lust, and flesh is allured. How much better is it to have to do with God in the trial than with Satan!

Whoever knows himself will pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” May the grace of God so work in us that we may not need to be sifted by Satan in order to be stripped of our pretensions. When Jesus prayed for Peter, whom He knew to be self-confident, He did not ask that His disciple might be spared the sifting of the enemy, but only that his faith should not fail him.

Verse 15. “When lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin.” Paul speaks in the inverse order in his Epistle to the Romans; chap. 7:8. “Sin wrought in me all manner of lust.” The difference between these two statements is this: Paul confines himself to spiritual principles; whilst James desires to shew their effects. One completes the other; sin, in the nature of man produces lust (Rom. 7), and lust produces sin in the conduct; James 1.

Verses 16-18. The Epistle of James acknowledges regeneration by the power of the grace of God, even as it owns also faith in Jesus (chap. 2:1)—two fundamental truths of the gospel. “Begat he us with the word of truth,” 1 Peter 1:23-25; John 3.

“That we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” God will reconcile all things to Himself; His creation and His elect. We, the begotten of the Father, are the firstfruits of that reconciled creation. In a certain sense, Adam after his sin may be said to have been the firstfruits of fallen creation.

Verses 19-27. Patience and obedience are two practical graces, two of those perfect gifts which the Father gives and which He delights to see developed in us. The new life is always dependent: too much or too little energy is worthless. As soon as self-will manifests itself, as soon as the man wills, there is sin.

Verse 21. “The engrafted word.” As a graft becomes an integral part of the subject into which it is engrafted, so the word becomes a part of the Christian. This is not the case with a law which remains a command outside of us. Let the word produce its effect in us, still its authority over us remains, an authority which is of God. The word builds up, enjoins, or condemns, as the case may be.

Verse 25. “The perfect law of liberty.” In James, the divine nature in us is always seen to be in perfect conformity to the law of God. That nature loves what God enjoins. When it so happens that the person to whom a command is made desires to do the thing commanded, he is pleasing himself whilst obeying the command. Such is the law of liberty. We see it exemplified in Christ; in order to attempt the hindrance of His liberty, it would have been necessary to impede His obedience. So it is with the divine nature in the Christian, it is always free, that is to say, ready to do the will of God. The conflict of the Christian does not destroy this truth, the principle in such case being “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”

Three laws are mentioned in James:

Firstly, the law of Moses in chapter 2:10, 11.

Secondly, the royal law, which is love to one’s neighbour in chapter 2:8.

Thirdly, the perfect law of liberty, in chapter 1:25; chap. 2:12. The two last resemble each other.

Verse 26. “And bridleth not his tongue.” The tongue is that which divulges most promptly the state of the soul. When abiding in the presence of God we have not an evil, or over-abundant, speech. “The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before him,” Hab. 2:20.

Verse 27. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father.” When abiding in subjection to God, life manifests itself, selfishness disappears, and we keep ourselves unspotted from the world.

Chapter 2.

Verses 1-13. It is quite useless to pretend to acquaintance with the Messiah (our Lord Jesus Christ in glory), when the conduct does not answer to the profession. Here, as in the course of the whole Epistle, James inveighs against the spirit of the world. Human grandeur, the attractions of the rich, respect of persons and despisal of the poor, all such things agree not with faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, for “God hath chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom.” Yet James does not level all ranks; what he requires is that there should be no preference given to the rich. On account of his position, the latter may have more needs; but it is needful to distinguish when such are genuine, or when arising from the tendency to pretend to riches, to appear grand, etc.

Verse 12. Judged by the law of liberty, that is to say, according to this nature imparted to us. That nature is holy: we ought therefore, according to this nature, to speak and act holily and so judge ourselves. Woe to him who to excuse evil would say, “I do that which I would not,” for although flesh is in us, we are not debtors to it.

Verse 13. “Mercy rejoiceth against judgment”—the same expression as in Exodus 8:9,” Glory over me.”

Verses 14-26. Faith is shewn by its fruits. James demands proof of professed faith and the answer if there is faith should be, “Behold the fruits.” That word “shew me” is the key to the subject. You say, I am a Christian: very well, but I cannot see the faith which is in your heart; shew it me by your works. The works required by James as evidence of faith are not such as are generally termed “good works.” He calls for works of faith, works similar to those of Abraham and Rahab. Such actions as putting one’s son to death, leaving one’s country, are not generally called good works, but they are works of faith. When Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his only-begotten son, he still believed he should have the numerous seed promised him by God. Rahab believed the Canaanites were cursed and that God had given their land to Israel, and she cast in her lot with the destiny of the people of God. These works, which manifest faith, are acts in which flesh can have no part.

Chapter 3.

Verses 1-12. James reaches the pride of man in another way, and combats against it: the endeavour to shine by fine speeches, to speak without restraint, does not agree with the respect due to our God and Father. If it is evil not to bridle the tongue in daily life, it is also evil to be itching to speak before an assembly. Be not many teachers. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, for the tongue is the instrument in man which is most ready to serve good or evil, it reveals the state of the soul. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.”

Verses 13-18. A wise man endued with knowledge will display himself, not by words, but by good conduct with meekness and wisdom, he will shew himself modest without hypocrisy, sowing the fruit of righteousness in peace.

Verses 14-16. There is a wisdom which is not from God, but which is seated in the human intelligence; it is earthly, sensual, devilish, and it is false to the gospel, because it professes to appertain to it.

Verses 17, 18. But the wisdom which is from God is first pure, then peaceable. It is the effect of the word when received; it makes us pure and peaceable.

The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace. Christ obeyed the will of God spontaneously without experiencing any inward resistance. Not that He was insensible to the suffering resulting from His faithfulness, for He felt it; still the motion of his soul was obedience only. So with us, although we have sorrow in persecution, or in the various troubles that come upon us, yet we should fulfil the will of God without internal conflicts; and this would be so, were our hearts more weaned from the rudiments of this world.

Chapter 4.

Verses 1-10 speak against lust. The apostle has just said that the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace, but lust is the enemy of all peace. It works perturbation in the saints and in their intercourse with God; they pray, but God does not hear them.

Verse 4. There is no agreement between the love of the world and the love of God, one destroys the other.

Verse 6. God it is who gives, but He gives to whom He chooses, namely, to the humble.

Verses 7-10. Do you desire to avoid the danger and the evil consequences of lust? Humble yourselves, submit to God, resist the devil, draw near to God, purify your conduct, feel your state. These things wound the pride of the flesh, but are able to keep us in a true state in the presence of the Lord who Himself will lift us up, and then it will be without danger.

Verses 13-17. We are again reminded of dependence and submission to God. It is not for us to choose our ways. To do so would be forgetting the authority of the Lord, obeying our lusts and acting in a boastful spirit.

Chapter 5.

Verses 1-6 are another censure upon the rich. James calls to mind the oppression of the great, and it is remarkable to see that he identifies those who seek after riches with those who condemned and killed the Just One.

Verses 7-9. “The Lord is coming.” Waiting for Him keeps the heart from the love of riches. We must wait in patience, and live in peace.

Verses 10-20 give various consolations and changes. Those that have suffered by the will of God are now blessed. If we suffer, we must follow their example, namely, suffer patiently.

Verses 14, 15. God in government sometimes afflicts by sickness, we must then judge ourselves; but He hears the prayers of the saints, forgives and heals.

Verses 16-18. The prayer of a righteous man availeth much. Elias is a proof of this.

Verses 19, 20. The love of souls is very precious; to turn a sinner from the error of his way is to save a soul from death, to cover a multitude of sins and to be doing as God does.