posted on Jul, 16 2012 @ 04:06 PM
Having begun the New Testament letter of James in the middle, I’m now continuing the series by moving on to the beginning.
This opening portion (ch1 vv1-12) is a sequence of three different themes- Faith, Wisdom, and Wealth.
At least they look like different themes, and the connection between them isn’t immediately obvious, but we may be able to find reasons why
they’ve been arranged in this way.
The fact that James opens his letter with a discussion of Faith(vv2-4) shows how central it is to his teaching, despite his reputation for criticising
His first point is that Faith will meet various “trials”. The word is frequently translated as “temptations”, elsewhere in the New Testament,
but the basic meaning is that something is being tested.
We should respond to these trials with joy (another word which might clash with his reputation), because of the benefits we can expect from them
The immediate effect is that the testing of their Faith produces(KATERGAZETAI) “steadfastness”, the ability to endure.
In other words, the successfully tested Faith becomes stronger, and better able to meet the next test.
(That word KATERGAZETAI is based on the word “work” (ERGON), and the root meaning is “to accomplish, to achieve, to do that from which something
Then steadfastness should be allowed to have its “full effect”( ERGON TELEAION)- more literally, its “complete or perfect work”.
When this happens, they may then be “perfect”, in the sense of having all desirable qualities, being “complete” and “lacking in
(As Jesus meant when he told his followers to be “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”-Matthew ch5 v48).
That is why the testing of their Faith should be a reason for joy.
The next theme is Wisdom (vv5-8).
The believer who doesn’t have Wisdom is urged to ask God for it.
There’s no need to be diffident about approaching him, because he gives generously and “without reproach”.
The thought of seeking Wisdom from God is deeply rooted in the Old Testament, including Wisdom’s invitation at the beginning of Proverbs;
“For the Lord gives Wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding”- Proverbs ch2 v6
At the same time, this request must be made with Faith, in the sense of having confidence and certainty.
Anyone who allows his mind to be divided between belief and unbelief will find himself “like a wave tossed by the wind”, restlessly switching
between the two states and never settling in a state of full confidence.
If he cannot ask in Faith, he will receive nothing from God.
In James’ ordinary teaching, this discussion of Wisdom could have been a mini-lecture in its own right. But why is it here, as the sequel to the
remarks on Faith? What’s the connection between them?
The most obvious possible connection is that thought of “lacking nothing” from v4.
Then he brings up Wisdom as one of the qualities which might be missing.
In that case, though, “ask for it from God” is a little inconsistent with the previous conclusion, that steadfastness will bring you everything
Another possible connection is that Wisdom is one of the results of steadfast Faith, since unwavering Faith, as already mentioned, is the key to
securing Wisdom from God.
Finally, there’s the possibility that Wisdom is offered as the means by which Faith is kept steadfast.
It is Wisdom that strengthens us, when we’re facing the test, and that’s the reason why we need to ask for it.
Which would mean, since God is our source of Wisdom, that God himself, in the last resort, strengthens us for the test and therefore maintains our
Then James moves on to the theme of wealth (vv9-11).
The implied starting point is the unspoken assumption that “The rich man boasts in his exaltation”, which James counters in two ways.
On the one hand, not the rich man, but the lowly man, should be boasting in his exaltation, having better reason to expect it.
In the words of the Magnificat;
“He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly”- Luke ch1 v52
The “lowly” man is also called a “brother”. So there’s room for debate about whether James feels brotherhood with poor people as such, or
whether he means “fellow-believer”, expecting fellow-believers to be found largely amongst the lowly.
On the other hand, not exaltation, but humiliation (“becoming lowly”), is what the rich man should be boasting in, because that’s the more
likely event. He will fade away like grass under the sun.
“Blessed are you poor…
But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation”- Luke ch6 v20,v24.
Once again, this theme could have been a mini-lecture in its own right.
It is the first entry in a series of reflections, in this letter, on the subject of wealth and poverty.
But what’s the reason for placing it in this context?
Perhaps the most obvious possible connection is that thought of “receiving from God” in v8.
The brethren receive Wisdom from God, the rich man believes he receives wealth from God, but Wisdom is the much more valuable and appropriate
Another possible connection is that Wisdom is the reason for the difference between the two attitudes.
If the lowly man is a “brother”, he will have received Wisdom from God, giving him the knowledge which enables him to boast in his exaltation.
Not having that understanding, the rich man will be absorbed in his wealth.
And if the right attitude on poverty is the effect of Wisdom, it must also be a litmus test for the presence of Wisdom (and the presence of Faith,
since they go together).
Later in the letter, “true religion” can be detected through the treatment of other people’s wealth and poverty.
So perhaps this theme is anticipating that thought, and finding a similar litmus test in a man’s attitude towards his own wealth or poverty.
After this, we come to v12, which I’m including in the discussion because I regard it as the postponed climax(after the insertion of the two
mini-lectures) of the first theme, the testing of Faith.
We are told two things about the crown of life.
On the one hand, it’s received by the man who successfully endures the test.
On the other hand, it is promised to, and presumably received by, those who love God.
The only way to reconcile those two statements is to link the two qualities together;
Only a man who loves God will be able to stand firm under pressure.
I’m inclined to think that these themes were part of James’ teaching before they were brought into this letter (I came to the same conclusion
about the different parts of the “use of the tongue” segment in ch3).
That would explain why the connections between them are so loose; the connections are secondary.
If so, then the way they’ve been brought into this letter has given them a further level of meaning.
In effect, these three strands have been twisted together into a discussion on Faith, which covers;
1) The need for Faith to be maintained, under the pressure of temptation.
2) The importance of Faith in obtaining Wisdom, and perhaps the importance of Wisdom in maintaining Faith.
3) How the maintenance of Faith can be demonstrated, in the believer’s treatment of worldly wealth.
Finally we see the triumphant conclusion of this discussion, in the reception of the crown of life.