James: Source of Wisdom (Part 1)

David gave this talk at the Catalyst Festival in 2016, as part of a morning Bible Study series. Click here to download it.


“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:


Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 10 But the rich should take pride in their humiliation – since they will pass away like a wild flower. 11 For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.

12 Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

13 When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do.” 



James is less often preached about in the Western church than Paul’s letters or the gospels. However, for people who’ve been Christians for a few years, many of the statements we quote come from James (seriously or sadly sometimes flippantly), such as “count it joy when you go through trials...” or, “not many of you should presume to be teachers”.  Or the problem with the tongue (we're fond of quoting James when we hear gossip we don’t like).  Or “resist the devil” but don’t forget the first bit (submit to God).  Or – are you sick? – call the elders of the church, anoint with oil etc.

Why? Because James is a bit like the Old Testament book of Proverbs in that it contains lots of wise sayings. Every culture has them and James writes giving us loads of easy to remember proverbs.

Perhaps because of Luther’s legacy (he described James as "the epistle of straw"), James tends to be taught less than Paul in Europe.  Philip Jenkins in “The New Faces of Christianity” shows how in Africa and the East, James is proportionately much more widely taught:

“James was written for emerging churches still trying to define the distinctions between Christian and non-Christian worlds, and it offers a set of rules for life as an unpopular Christian minority in a hostile non-Christian culture.  One African commentary notes that “James uses a particularly friendly way of addressing his Christians on the day to day problems they (and we too) are likely to meet”.

In the Eastern church the order of New Testament books  is different; in the West we have gospels, Acts, then Paul, then the other writers.  In the Orthodox church (and therefore in the Bible our friends from countries like Russia use), the order is – gospels, Acts, James, Peter, John, Jude and then Paul.. The order of books is not inspired, but does tend to influence us a bit.



So, who is James and what is his story?

James was a common name in those days – it's the Anglicised (through Latin) version of Jacob – another very common Jewish name. There are several mentioned in the Bible.  James the brother of John, but can’t be him as he died very early, killed by Herod.  Another disciple, James son of Alpheus – but we never hear of him again.  However, there was one very famous James in New Testament church.  He became senior leader of church in Jerusalem – referred to many times respectfully by Paul  as “one of the apostles” “James the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19).  He is the one who could be called “James” without other descriptions.

Several times in the gospels Jesus’ brothers and sisters are referred tog. “Coming to his home town… ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?’ they asked. ‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?  Aren’t all his sisters with us?”  Matt 13:54-56.  Jesus was Mary’s first born.  Joseph and Mary evidently went on to have other children (there is no evidence in Bible that Mary remained a virgin – indeed when Joseph married her on angel’s instructions – it says he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to Jesus (Matt 1:25), implying that they did afterwards).  So James was probably a younger son of Joseph and Mary or just possibly a step brother of Jesus from an earlier marriage of Joseph who was it seems a lot older than Mary.  Imagine seeing your brother become an anointed preacher, healer, someone who crowds followed.  Actually at that time his brothers and sisters didn’t believe in him – and even joined with his mother in trying to control him and take him home because they were worried he was “out of his mind” (Mark 2:21).

So, James was an unbeliever in his half brother – how did it all change?

After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to a number of people, including his brother, James (1 Cor 15:7). Imagine your crucified brother appearing to you, alive from the dead.  James became a convinced follower of Jesus.  Now in his background, James seems to have been, like Jesus, an educated Jew (carpenter did not mean uneducated) – very well versed with the Scriptures, fluent in very good Greek (not unusual in Galilee where many languages were spoken) and so quickly became the leader of the apostles and elders in the Jerusalem church.  Respected not because he was Jesus’ brother (he doesn’t even refer to that in this letter – nor is it often referred to) but because of his wisdom, respect, character and understanding of Scripture (the Bible).



After James became leader of church in Jerusalem, Stephen challenged the Jewish leaders about the hypocrisy of worshipping in the temple but crucifying the one Stephen believed to be the Messiah. Stephen was stoned to death and most of the believers had to flee Jerusalem as refugees and went to live elsewhere either in northern Israel, Galilee or mainly in Syria.

As they fled, like all refugees, they faced many problems. Poverty, homelessness (or at least temporary accommodation away from home comforts), having to work for wealthy landowners or businessmen who exploited them (James refers a lot to this), grumbling amongst each other because some seemed to get a better deal. Some of the refugees were richer and, as business men and women, they may have been able to establish themselves better and had a tendency to look down on their poorer brothers and sisters.

Also many of them would have been relatively new believers. Though they understood that they were saved by grace through faith, some of them were unclear that to be truly born again by grace of God was intended to make a dramatic change in our lives, not simply a slogan that we’ve been put in the right before God by faith.  Many Jewish teachers understood that God chose them as his people by grace but they had to please God by very strictly keeping the law.  These new believers needed to understand that now saved by faith through Christ, didn’t need to be legalistic but that new life was still to have an effect in their lives.

So James as their former pastor was writing to these people soon after they were scattered – before the discussion at the Council of Jerusalem which discussed non Jews coming into the church, among other things.

It is possible that it also went to a wider audience than this. People from the 12 tribes were still in the Jewish diaspora – many to the east, beyond the Roman empire – some commentators believe the epistle was written to them too.



This section is all written like easy to remember proverbs.

When life gets tough (v2-3)

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”

When James says “consider it pure joy” – he doesn’t mean that’s the only emotion you feel!  That’s both unrealistic and not true to the whole of Scripture.  You may feel sad, depressed, frustrated, angry (it’s not fair!) – you are suddenly a refugee, exploited and away from home.  However, it is the conclusion you come to having thought about God’s goodness, his sovereign purposes in your life etc. – you choose to rejoice because you know it will develop in you a particularly important godly characteristic – perseverance, “keeping going”. It’s sometimes hard to get there.


Ask God for wisdom (v5-6)

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” 

We often don’t know what we should do, so ask God; he loves to give wisdom.  However don’t give way to doubt about your Father’s generous character – he loves to give generously.  But often we doubt Him and also are not fixed on wanting to please him; that makes us unstable.


Wise words for the poor and the rich (v9-11)

The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.  But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower.  For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.”  

He was writing to both here!  If you are poor – rejoice in your high position!  Despite all outward circumstances you are a child of God, loved by Him, knowing His presence, trusting Him to provide.  If you are rich – rejoice in your low position.  You are no better than the poor even if you drive a better car and live in a bigger house.  It’s only by God’s grace, not by your efforts and it may not last – you could lose your job, the stock market may fall – so rejoice in the fact that you are humble not proud.


When temptation/testing comes, it’s not God’s fault! (v13-15)

When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;  but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”  English words “temptation” and “testing” translate the same Greek word so meaning is sometimes unclear or ambiguous.  For example, in Lord’s prayer: “Lead me not into temptation” – or “Don’t put me to the test” – which is it?  Or is it both?  Here they were already going through testing but even in tough circumstances, they could fall into  temptation to sin – if so, don’t blame God.  He’s given you new life and therefore power and authority over sin.  No excuses.  No excuses for bitterness, for being unfaithful to your wife/husband.  Covenant commitment is the basis of love, not temporary attraction etc.


God is a generous giver (v16-18)

Don’t misjudge God’s character – “Don’t be deceived” – he’s not giving you temptations rather blessing with good gifts – important for the refugee community: another small proverb of truth (v 17-18):

  • “Every good giving and every perfect gift” – poetic style in Greek, possibly a saying of the early church. Father – His creative power as well as His care – hence Father of lights – (compare Job 38:28 “Does the rain have a father? Who gives birth to the dew?”) – without movement unlike the lights – variations – and shadows – the constant motion of the heavenly bodies.
  • Every created being must necessarily undergo change for this is its property, even as unchangeableness is the property of God” Philo.

Not only is He the Father of creation, but of the new creation through His Word – He gave us birth – “firstfruit” is a common description of Christians – the word of the gospel.


Slow to speak, quick to listen! (v19-20)

Oh that we may learn this lesson!  James embarks on one of his favourite themes – “the tongue” – as he recognises his readers are struggling with this one. It's the same for some in many cultures today – anger, gossip, slander.  He is referring relevantly to traditional Jewish wisdom – listening much, talking little – a characteristic too of many non-Western cultures – which is also relevant to how we discern leadership.

A truly wise person uses few words; a person with understanding is even-tempered.  Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent.” 17:27-28.

Uncontrolled anger leads to uncontrolled speech” Douglas Moo.  We use the phrase: “The heat of the moment”.  It's often said today – it’s better to get it out than be “repressed” – and while it's true that anger held on to turns to bitterness, emotions need to be brought in line with God’s Word – through grace and by the Spirit.  Righteousness here is not as Paul uses the word, but what God expects of His people.  Rid yourselves (take off – like clothes) of immorality because God’s Word implanted in you can bring about change, so humbly receive it.


Don’t just listen but obey (v22-25)

Another picture or figure of speech that many cultures love – looking at your face in a mirror and forgetting what it looks like!  Deceive yourself – a very strong word – used by Paul in Col. 2 about false teachers.  The hearer looks at his face and see it “warts and all” – but forgets that and doesn’t do anything about it – or could be don’t remember God’s acts and teachings – only listening superficially.

By contrast listen intently (stooping down) – to the perfect law of freedom.  Not simply a reference to the laws of Moses, but James bases his teaching on the teaching of Jesus – “the law of Moses” as interpreted and supplemented by Jesus.  It's a new covenant!

 “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord,    ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord.  33 ‘This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God,    and they will be my people. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’”  Jer. 31:31-34.

This contrasts with a quick glance, literally, “not a hearer of forgetfulness but a doer of work”.

Click here to head to Part 2 of the 'James: Source of Wisdom' series.

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