Introductory context and structure:
James the brother of Jesus wrote what is probably the most ‘Jewish’ book in the New Testament. In structure and in it’s treatment of subject matter, it sounds rabbinic. While the book was addressed to the church at large, the church at that time was mainly Jewish. It had been scattered by the persecution that arose in Jerusalem leading to the early progress of the gospel among the Gentiles in Antioch and then in Asia Minor.
The author’s use of the word diaspora is important because of it’s historic connotation and the new meaning introduced by James. As a technical term it signified that part of the Jewish people who remained abroad after God allowed his people to return from exile. It reminded Israel that they had rebelled against God and suffered the consequences prophesied by Moses who warned them before they entered Canaan (Deut 4:25-31). God scattered his people to punish disobedience.
The apostle Paul identified the church as God’s new Israel (Gal 6:16) stating that those who have faith in Jesus are the true sons of Abraham (Gal 3:7). They are the sons of God by faith, having clothed themselves in Christ by being baptized into Him. As God’s new Israel, the church was being persecuted for faithfulness and scattered among the nations.
The new diaspora was happening for all of the right reasons. Jesus had warned his disciples that they would be persecuted for the sake of his name (John 15:18-20) and that persecution would even come from within their own families (Mt. 10:34-39). Those who scattered the church thought that God was punishing Christians, but James assured his brethren that this was not so.
How then should a persecuted and scattered people live? How ought they understand trials and temptation? What should they do when their faith was tested? In the ‘economy of God’, what is real poverty and genuine wealth? (James 1:1-18).
James returns to this subject of faithful living in the face of persecution in chapter 5 where he condemns those who persecute and abuse the church (vs 1-6) while holding up the faithfulness of God’s prophets as an example of perseverance and prayer. The prophets of God were persecuted by their own people, as were Christians , yet men like Elijah still prayed for God to intervene in order to bring about repentance.
These two sections (1:1-12 and chapter 5) act as bookends within which James turns attention to other matters pertaining to life within the church.
Though the book of James sounds a lot like first century rabbinic instruction, that similarity ends when James outlines the structure of the middle chapters in 1:19b, where he wrote: “…Now everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger…”
- “Quick to hear” – or – hearing for the purpose of doing (ch. 1:20-2:26)
- “Slow to speak” – control of the tongue – (chapter 3)
- “Slow to anger” – ending fights and quarrels in the church – (chapter 4)
There is one another context for what James wrote that is also worth some attention. A surface reading of what James says about faith and works may seem to create tension with what the apostle Paul would later write. Paul’s emphasis was upon grace and the undeserved nature of salvation in Christ (Eph 2:8-10).
10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”
What Paul wrote appears to contrast sharply with the words of James in
- (2: 14)
- 14 What use is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?
- 20 But are you willing to acknowledge, you foolish person, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was our father Abraham not justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Those who think that Paul and James contradict each other are mistaken. There is actually a parallel emphasis in the writing of both authors when we add James 1:17-18 into the mix where James wrote:
- 17 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. 18 In the exercise of His will He gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.
Both James and Paul agree, that salvation is a gift from God and is acquired by faith. James highlights the grace of God, describing Him as the unchanging ‘Father of lights’ who gives the perfect gift in the perfect way. The greatest of his gifts is the gift of salvation in Jesus acquired through the gospel (word of truth) by which he has given birth to his people. This same role played by the gospel and its proclamation is also found in Rom 10:17 and I Peter 1:22-25)
The apostle Paul and James agree that once we have been saved by grace, there remains the matter of godly living. Now that we are the ‘first-fruits’ of God’s new creation in Christ, how then ought we live? Or as the apostle Paul puts it, as God’s workmanship, we have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them”. The emphasis in the book of James is not about the ‘root’ of our salvation but about it’s ‘fruit’.
The balance of the text for this article belongs to the first section of that book that we identified. It is about faithful living in the face of persecution (James 1: 12-18)
16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers and sisters.
17 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. In the exercise of His will He gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.
The Bible has a lot to say about trials and temptations, offering many examples. It is helpful to think of these as they relate to what we often call the permissive will of God and the active will of God.
When God created us in his image, it was necessary for Him to grant to us the same ability that he has to make free choices. His doing so was good and it was exercised in the context of a new creation that was ‘very good’. Given the sovereignty of God and his rights as God, one of the choices extended to us involved accepting or rejecting His right to rule. Within the freedom to choose, we have the capacity to reject God and to refuse to serve him. Feedom of choice exists because God permits it. In this sense only, the ‘permissive’ will of God includes the option of rebelling against Him. He does not approve of rebellion, thus it is not an expression of God’s active will. God wants the people whom He has created in his image to love Him, to honour him as God and to serve in obedience to his will.
According to the bible, trials come upon us in at least two ways. Since we live in a ‘fallen world’, life is hard. The struggle to survive is real. “Natural’ disaster, sickness, disease and misfortune are part of life in a world which has has been made adversarial to us by God as a consequence of sin. Life in a world experiencing the penalties of sin may certainly be thought of as ‘trials’ or difficulties. These both stress our lives and test our faith.
In addition to these seemingly more naturally occurring difficulties, God may go out of his way to ‘try’ or to ‘test’ our faith. He did this with Israel when he led them into the wilderness (Deut. 8:1-4). These kinds of trials and tests exist both within God’s permissive will and his active will. He permits us to live with the consequences of our sin and sometimes puts our faith directly to the test in individual circumstances. When we obey God, we choose what God wants and that which he actively approves. If we respond to tests or trials in disobedience, we do something that God permits but of which he disapproves.
Therefore is it neither good nor bad in itself that trials exist. Their presence is a fact of life and as much a part of life as any other aspect. How we understand trials and respond to them makes all the difference.
However, trials are not the only thing that we face. James pairs these with temptations since they often appear together. When God ‘tries’ us, he urges us to choose obedience. When we are tempted, the temptation heightens our desire to disobey. It is an active force pushing us away from God and therefore never originates with God. God allows us to be tempted – it happens within God’s permissive will. But God is never the source. Satan is often identified as the source of temptation since he has chosen to be an adversary to God. So while God is sometimes the active source of tests or trials, he is never the source of temptation.
James explains how we can know that God is never the source of temptation. It is impossible for God ‘to be’ tempted. This is true for two reasons.
- The nature of God. God is entirely good, He is both righteous and holy. The holy nature of God makes it impossible for him to be tempted to do or to be evil. An eternal God who is righteous, can no more do evil than he can cease to exist. He would cease to be eternally good were he to encourage His creatures to reject goodness. He would cease to be holy if he urged men and women to commit unholy acts..
- The Person of God God is infinite in dimension and absolute in His being. Temptation is after all an offer to have, to gain or to receive something that is not yet yours. God already owns everything. All things and persons both in heaven and on earth already belong to Him and are lesser beings. It is impossible for any created being to offer anything to God as an inducement for Him to cease to be God.
For these reasons, it is impossible for God to be tempted by evil and for Him to ever be the source of temptation in our lives. However, when trials do come our way, Satan often piggybacks a temptation on top of it them, which may cause us to think that God is responsible for both. In 1st Corinthians 10: 13, the apostle Paul assures us that God has put boundaries around temptation that strengthen our ability to resist while preserving our freedom of choice.
This is what he wrote:
“No temptation has overtaken you except something common to mankind; and God is faithful, also He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it”
James proceeds to explain that we are never passive in the process. Sometimes we place ourselves in harms way and bring trials into our own lives unnecessarily. At other times, we are the source of our own temptation. These arise from our own desires which are often misplaced or blown out of proportion. James uses the word lust to indicate the inordinate strength with which we might invest ourselves in the pursuit of things that we want. He warns that desire out of control leads to behaviour of the same kind, observing that lust blinds us to the consequences of sin and encourages us to live for the moment. James wants us to be aware of how temptation works so that we can break the cycle before it leads to sin.
In verses 14-15 he says:
James wants us to understand that ‘temptation’ itself is a personal act of the will. Others may induce or attempt to persuade, but it is up to to whether or not we allow these to rise to level of ‘temptation’. Flip Wilson was wrong. The Devil does not have the power to make anyone do anything. Sin is a personal choice which is preceded by the decision to allow yourself to be tempted. When we give lust, the time of day, we take that first step.
James uses imagery drawn from hunting and fishing. Anyone who has ever trapped, hunted or fished can identify with the use of bait. When a flock of ducks and geese see decoys on the water and hear a welcoming call , they think that it’s safe to land and that there is food to be had. It does not occur to them that the decoys are not real nor are the hunters friendly.
So it is that lust draws us toward evil and blinds us to the consequences. Heightened desire captures our minds and fills our hearts. We want what we want, and we want it now. As desire for evil gathers momentum, it becomes harder and harder to reclaim control. There comes a time when we are as James says…‘carried away’.
In verse 15, the imagery changes and becomes sexual. It is worth mentioning that many of the desires that we have are natural in the sense that they are God-given. They are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. In fact, if the desire is of God, there is always a good and right use for it.
The sexual analogy that James uses is meant to place two things alongside of each other for the purpose of illustration. In the same way that consummated sexual desire leads to conception and birth, so any and all evil desires follow the same path. When we yield to temptation, we sin. Sin always has to potential of taking over our lives, bringing about death now and into eternity.
One of the things that the New Testament reveals is that there is both life after death and death after death. James warns against the consequences of yielding to temptation which leads to spiritual death here and now, and a permanent state of death beyond the grave.
Verses 16-18 urge us to resist the kind of thinking that leads to self deception. The will of God is never advanced by temptation or deception. His providential gifts and the gift of salvation by grace are each untainted and pure, as is the process by which they are obtained. And while it remains within the permissive will of God for us to face trials and temptations, He intends for trials to strengthen our faith and protects us from the power of the ‘evil one’. Salvation is freely given and must be obtained by faithful obedience that is freely chosen.