Free Online Bible Library | Lecture 5: James - Part 1

Lecture 5: James - Part 1

Course: New Testament Overview, by Dr. Carl Laney

Lesson 5: James - Part 1

Hi, I’m Carl Laney, Prof here at Western Seminary and it’s my privilege to provide for you this introduction to the New Testament. Ten days after the ascension of Jesus was the Feast of Pentecost. It was on this day that the early church received what Jesus had promised, the coming of the Holy Spirit. As a result of the indwelling and empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit the church grew. 3,000 came to faith on the Day of Pentecost. 1,000 were added in the days that followed as the early church grew. But there was also persecution, Peter and John were arrested for preaching the Gospel and punished. Jewish followers of Jesus were ostracized by those who rejected his Messianic claims. Many lost their jobs as a result of the persecution, persecution which Jesus had foretold. Without income, they fell into poverty. It was in response to these needs of these early Messianic believers that James, the half-brother of Jesus wrote his letter. The lack of any reference to the Judaizing controversy which was addressed by the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, suggested that the book was written before AD49. If so, the Epistle of James is the first New Testament letter. James wrote to believers who were weary from persecution and seemed to have lost their fervor for good works and the practical application of Jesus teaching.

Let’s pray and then we’ll delve into the letter. Heavenly Father we thank you for James, the half-brother of Jesus and we’re grateful for his leadership in the early church. We’re also grateful for the letter that he wrote that can be so beneficial for us today. Guide us by your Holy Spirit as we interact and study this text. It’s in the name of our Savior we pray, Amen.

I. Tests of a Living Faith

A. Author

Well, we want to get acquainted with the facts on the Book of James. I’ve mentioned James, the half-brother of Jesus as the author. There were some other possible James figures in the New Testament, there’s James the father of Judas, not Judas Iscariot but the other Judas, there’s the James the son of Zebedee, James the son of Alphaeus, and James the half-brother of Jesus. And the traditional view from the historian Eusebius on is that the Epistle was authored by James the half-brother of Jesus. James was an important leader in the early church and he needed no further identification.

B. Readers

The letter was written to believing Jews who were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Their scattering was a probably the result of persecution which broke out in Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen.

C. Date of Writing

The lack of reference to the Judaizing controversy which is addressed in Acts 15 would suggest the date before AD49 and as I said if that’s correct then James is the first New Testament Epistle.

D. Historical Setting

The letter indicates that readers were suffering persecution and trials. They were also lacking in fervor for good works and the practical application of Christian living.

E. Purpose

James writes to insist that a saving faith is also a working faith proving its genuineness by what it does. He exhorts the readers to live out the ethical implications of their faith. Craig Evans, a graduate of Western Seminary, has written a book called Fabricating Jesus, and in that book, he talks about the letter of James. He says, “That the letter serves as a pastoral function urging Jewish believers to demonstrate the living reality of their faith through good works.” “It’s written, says Craig Evans, not to deal with the teaching that claimed good works and self-made righteousness completed the work of the Savior Jesus.” That was the problem that Paul addressed in his letters.

F. Theme

Well the theme of the Book, I suggest, is tests of a living faith. A true and genuine faith can be tested and proven true. I love this image, here’s this little boy looking at this huge, furious lion and the caption reads, “True character is revealed when you come face to face to with adversity.” And it’s really true in the Christian life when we face adversity and difficult times, it reveals the genuineness of our personal faith. You can see how people respond to trials whether their faith is deep and genuine or rather shallow and superficial.

Now the Epistle of James is very difficult to outline because of the many topics that James addresses. Like Proverbs and other wisdom literature, James sets forth a variety of topics and practical exhortations and they don’t seem to be in any logical or chronological order. The outline I’m using in my notes is adapted from Edmond Hebert’s article, The Unifying Theme of the Epistle of James. But there is a preaching outline that I’ve found to be helpful and it’s based upon an acrostic which uses the letters of the word W-O-R-K-S. Chapter 1 Working Patience Through Trials. Chapter 2 Obedience that Accompanies Faith. Chapter 3 Restraining the Unbridled Tongue. Chapter 4 Keeping Calm in Conflict. Chapter 5 Suffering and Sickness. The acrostic W-O-R-K-S for the introductory word for each of those chapters can help us to remember this outline.

James is the Epistle of the imperative. He says, “Just do it.” The Apostle Paul spends 11 chapters in Rom. laying a foundation for the exhortations and encouragement that begins in Chapter 12. Similarly, in Eph. 1-3 is all doctrinal. In Chapter 4-6 the practical application. But James starts off with practical application, he just says, “you know it, now do it.”


A. Introduction 1:1

Let’s look at the first section of the letter faith tested by its response to trial. As the letter begins the author introduces himself, James bondservant of God. Well if you don’t punctuate that correctly you’ll have 007 writing this letter. But add a comma after James, a bondservant of God. To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad. Now some have taken it that this is a reference to Jewish and Gentile believers who are spiritual descendants of Abraham but the fact that he mentions twelve tribes leads me to conclude that he’s talking about Jewish believers, Messianic Jews who have embraced Jesus and are dispersed from among the twelve tribes.

B. The Attitude in Trials, 2-4

1. What is a trial?

Well, James jumps right into the problem of the trials that these people had been experiencing. The trials of poverty and persecution that they were undergoing in those early days after the church was founded in Jerusalem. And so, James says how do you deal with those trials and persecutions? He says, “Count it all joy my brethren when you encounter those various trials.” Joy is the proper response to the testing of our faith. It’s important to distinguish though between joy and happiness. Joy, I suggest, is deeply rooted and founded in a relationship we have with Jesus. Happiness, on the other hand, is dependent upon circumstances, happenings. So, joy is from Jesus and happiness comes from circumstances. Even though the circumstances might be difficult if we know Jesus and have a relationship with him we can have joy in the midst of our unhappy circumstances, joy in the midst of trials.

2. What is a temptation?

Now the word that James uses for trials is the same word that can be translated temptations. So what is James talking about here? These are closely related concepts. A trial is designed by God to prove the genuineness of one’s faith. Temptation, on the other hand, is designed by Satan to solicit evil and lead people to sin. The context is the key to determining what James is talking about. I suggest that the immediate context deals with trials. James is talking about trials and the trials they were experiencing were poverty, persecution, and oppression as indicated in the text. James points out that trials are a means by which our faith is proven genuine. The immediate fruit of those trails as we respond to them is perseverance knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. The Greek word endurance means to stay under, to abide under. As we stay under those trials and persevere through them God builds our character. He builds our strength and our maturity. And let endurance have its perfect result that you may be perfect, better rendered mature, that you may be mature and strong in your faith. When trials come our way it’s an opportunity to prove our character and to develop our character as God’s people.

C. Prayer for Wisdom 1:5-8

Well, James anticipates that some of his readers will not understand the purpose of their trials or the benefit that can come through trials. So, he suggests that they pray for wisdom. He says in verse 5, “If any of you lack wisdom let him ask of God who gives to all generously and without reproach and it will be given to him.” Now the context of this prayer is the context of trials and the need for wisdom to know how to respond to trials and get the benefit from those trials. So, I’m going to define wisdom in this context as the practical and successful application of God’s truth to our trials knowing how to respond to those trials and get the benefit of those trials.

James points out that the attitude of prayer is important. We must ask with faith and without doubting. He points out that the doubter is like a double-minded person saying yes and no at the same time. Kind of a person with a divided allegiance. The single-hearted person is the kind of person whose prayers are answered and honored.

D. An Evaluation of Wealth 1:9-11

Next James moves into an evaluation of wealth. Some of the people were experiencing deep poverty and perhaps they were jealous of those who were more wealthy. So, James addresses the subject of poverty and he tries to give a perspective on wealth and poverty in verses 9-11, he says that the poor man is to rejoice and glorify God for his exalted position in Christ. Even though a person is poor financially they are sons and daughters of the High King of Heaven. They have a position in Christ that makes them part of God’s family and that’s something to rejoice in. So, the poor person can rejoice in the eternal perspective that they have on their relationship with God

The rich man, on the other hand, is to glory in his humiliation. As I interpret that in the context I suggest that it refers to his being humbled and coming to a point of repentance so that he realizes that his riches won’t guarantee his entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven and that’s it only through Christ that he has an eternal reward. So, the poor man is to rejoice in his high position in Christ, the rich man is to rejoice in his humiliation that brings him to faith in Christ and a recognition that riches are only temporal. Riches are like the flower that withers under the intense heat and fades away. So, too, says James, the rich man in the midst of his pursuit, his pursuit of riches will fade away. It’s all ill-fated if we don’t have Christ as the center.

E. The Way of Temptation.

James now turns in verse 12 from the subject of trials to the subject of temptations. Now it’s the same word that he used in the previous text, but the context distinguishes trials from temptations. So, James is moving now to the subject of temptations. Some of the believers, reading this letter, thought that as God brought trials he also brought temptations. So, as they responded to those temptations and fell into sin they were blaming God. They were saying, “God made me do it, I fell into this sin because God tempted me. He made me sin.” James wants to correct that, so in verse 13 he says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, I am being tempted by God for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself does not tempt anyone.” The expression God cannot be tempted by evil is kind of hard to translate. It can be rendered God is not versed, God is unversed in reference to evil. He has no connection with evil in terms of its cause. God and evil just don’t mix it up together. God is sovereign over evil, he knows about evil, but he is not the source of solicitation to evil, that’s what James is saying here.

He points out that temptation has its source in the desire of the heart which is eager for what is forbidden. He says each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lusts. The word enticed is a word that means to be caught by the bait. Satan offers the bait and we often respond to that bait and take the bait and pursue a course of sin. James is emphasizing that we need to catch the temptation before it proceeds into sin. The chart I’ve shown you here just illustrates the progression of sin from temptation to death. Temptation starts with desire, the desire of our own hearts and then that temptation can come to a point of conception where we respond to the enticement and that leads to sin as we see sin is the offspring of desire. The ultimate result is death, spiritual death, spiritual separation from God. So, the author emphasizes again in verse 16, don’t be deceived, God is not the source of your temptations, your temptations come from your own heart. Don’t blame God for your sin and temptation.

Then he points out in verses 17 and 18 that God is the source of only good gifts. If it’s not, it’s not from God, God is the source of good gifts. Well, we all face temptations don’t we and those temptations vary depending upon our circumstances, but I would recommend the book by Randy Alcorn, The Purity Principal, and he gives a good insight into the subject of temptation. He says, “It’s always easier to avoid temptation than to resist it.” “In moments of strength,” he says, “make decisions that will prevent temptation in moments of weakness.” Plan ahead and make sure you’ve got a course of action to deliver yourself from temptation before you actually face it.


A. Receiving the Word 19-21

James goes on to point out that faith can be tested by its response to the Word of God. A correct response to the Word of God is crucial, a crucial test for a real and genuine faith. It’s here that James says, put aside anger, this hostile attitude that doesn’t achieve the purposes of God. Put aside wickedness, remove all that hinders God’s work in your life.

B. Applying the Word 22-25

Then he says that not only must we receive the Word, but we must obey it. I love the illustration that James gives us, it’s the man in the mirror. It’s the fellow who wakes up in the morning, he walks to the mirror, he looks at himself and he says, “You know my hair needs to be brushed; my face needs to be washed; my beard needs to be trimmed” He looks at all those needs and then he walks away and he does nothing about it. And he says that’s the problem with some believers, they read the Word of God, they see what needs to be done, but then they walk away, and they don’t obey. And he points out in verse 25 that blessing doesn’t come from knowledge, blessing comes through obedience. We are blessed as we obey. So, he encourages the readers not to be forgetful hearers but affectual doers. It’s the doers of the Word that are going to be blessed not merely the hearers of God’s Word.


A. The sin of Partiality, 1-4

In Chapter 2, he moves to the subject of faith tested by its reaction to partiality. You know we tend to favor those with wealth, power, and influence. This is true even among Christians. We favor those that have something that can benefit us, and those that can’t benefit us we tend to ignore. I remember a chapel service years ago at Western Seminary and we came in the chapel and there was a man who appeared to be a homeless man sitting on the front row. He had an old jacket on, it was ragged, he had a hat pulled down over his ears and he sat there in the front row. We wondered, what is this homeless man doing here in our chapel service. He’s wandered in. Nobody spoke to him, when we stood to sing a hymn everybody picked up a hymnal, but he just sat there. No one offered him a hymn. Well, I was the one who was in charge of chapel that day and after the opening of our chapel I introduced our speaker. And Mike, who had dressed as a homeless man, stepped forward and addressed our congregation, our chapel, on the text we are looking at today on the sin of partiality. That was a real striking illustration of the fact that we’re all susceptible to partiality.

B. The Evil Consequences of Partiality, 5-11

We’re all susceptible to ignoring those who maybe have special needs and James warns against that. He warns against giving the wealthy man a nice place to sit in the congregation and having the poor man sit on the floor or stand in the back. Partiality takes place even in Christian circles and James warns against it. He warns that partiality dishonors God’s choice of the poor and that partiality tends to favor those who oppress us as believers and that partiality is a breach of the law of love. When we are partial we are not really loving.

C. Summary Exhortation, 12-13

James gives us a summary exhortation in verses 12 and 13, “speak and so act as those who are judged by the law of liberty, for judgment will be merciless to the one who has no mercy, mercy triumphs over judgment.” The law of liberty, the law that sets us free, the law that is written on our heart by the Holy Spirit. Live by that law, that principle of loving others and being concerned for them.


A. The fallacy of Inactive Faith, 14-18

Well now in Chapter 2:14, James begins his emphasis on being doers of the Word not hearers only. So, faith can be tested by the production of good works. James begins this section with some troubling comments about the fallacy of inactive faith. At first glance as read this section, it seems to be in flat contradiction with the Apostle Paul and Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. We know that Paul insists that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, Gal. 2:16 and Rom. 3:20 and Eph. 2:8-9. James, on the other hand, seems to be arguing in this section that a man is justified by works, not by faith alone. Is it possible to reconcile these two apparently contradictory viewpoints? Well it’s an interesting question, isn’t it? I’m going to suggest that James and Paul were confronting two different issues. Now their words and concepts and even their illustrations are quite similar, but the audience and the purpose is different. Paul’s concern was dealing with the works of the law apart from grace. And those who were saying that you had to add something to what Jesus had done. They were the Judaizers, and they were saying you have to worship on the Sabbath, be circumcised, and obey the Jewish law and traditions. James, on the other hand, is dealing with a totally different concern. He’s dealing with the concern of those who make a profession of faith but there’s no evidence of it. There are no deeds that follow that up. Paul, it seems who is refuting those who advocated works, circumcision, and the observance of Jewish ceremonial law as necessary for justification. James was challenging those who presumed the mere adequacy of an intellectual assent of solid doctrine but didn’t have any fruit of the faith in their lives. Ladd in his New Testament theology says in brief James and Paul are dealing with two different issues. Paul, with the self-righteousness of Jewish legal piety and James with dead orthodoxy.

B. The Illustrations of an Active Faith, 19-26

So, let’s look at this text and see how James develops his teaching here. In verse 14 “what use is it brethren if someone has faith but he has no works?” Can that kind of faith save him? Well, James actually answers the question for us. Is a saving faith, can that be a non-working faith? Can an inactive non-working faith save? And James has the answer there for us, no. That can’t save that’s not the right kind of a biblical faith. He gives some illustrations of that in verses 15 and 16 he says, if a brother or sister is without clothing and daily need of food and one of you says go in peace, be warmed, and filled, yet you do not give him what is necessary for his body what use is that? Is that the kind of faith that we’re talking about in scripture that is a saving faith. Words alone don’t help, they must be accompanied by actions, that’s what James is saying. Genuine faith is accompanied by works and faith without works is a fallacy.

I went to the store the other day and I picked out a cart of groceries and I went to the cashier and brought out my money to pay my cashier. I presented him with my money and he looked at that money and said, “You can’t pay for your groceries with that, that’s Monopoly money.” I said, “But notice, it says a 500 on this and 500 on that and 20,000 on that, I certainly can pay for my groceries” and of course the people in line were kind of looking at me in a strange way. I said, “This is money, I want to pay for my groceries.” He said, No, you can’t pay for your groceries with Monopoly money, it’s not real money.” Well, that’s what James is saying about faith without works, he says it’s like Monopoly faith. It’s not real, it’s not genuine.

Works are the expression of a genuine faith and the two are functionally inseparable. Faith and works. And so he provides some illustrations of an active faith. What is an active faith like? The first illustration is kind of unusual, he says “Demons believe in God and they shutter.” Now demons aren’t going to be saved, they are fallen creatures and spirit beings, but they believe. They believe that God exists, and they have an active response to that knowledge. They shutter in fear of their coming judgment.

Abraham had an active faith and it was on the basis of Abraham’s faith that he offered up Isaac. Abraham believed God and he offered up Isaac. Paul uses the same illustration from Abraham’s life to point out that Abraham was declared righteous and justified on the basis of faith. Paul appeals to Gen. 15:6, James appeals to Gen. 22. Both use Abraham’s life as an illustration of faith. Paul uses the illustration of Abraham believing and is declared righteous because he believed he offered up Isaac. James uses the illustration of his offering Isaac as an illustration of his genuine faith.

Then there’s the Rahab. Rahab believed God, she had faith in what God was revealing and she helped the spies. Even this Canaanite woman, this harlot, demonstrated her faith, inactive faith which is a dead faith. It’s not really a faith at all.

So how do faith and works fit together? Let me say this, that we are saved by grace through faith unto good works. Good works you might say are the natural byproduct of salvation. They are not the basis of our salvation, they are the byproduct of salvation. This is not just the teaching of James in his Epistle, we find this teaching throughout the New Testament. We find John the Baptist speaking to the Pharisees saying, “Bring forth the fruit of your professed repentance” in Matt. Chapter 3. We find Jesus using an illustration of the sheep and the goats and the sheep are in Matt. 25 are ushered into the Kingdom and the goats are sent eternal judgment. What’s the difference between the sheep and the goats, the people there? Well, the sheep responded not only with faith but with works and the goats did not evidence any genuineness of their faith by their works. So, we find this is the teaching of the Bible that the Cretians, Paul says professed to know God, they had a great profession but by their deeds they denied him. Titus 1:16. So faith and works go hand in hand. The works don’t save us, but they are the evidence of a genuine salvation. They are the fruit and natural byproduct of our faith.

Transcribed by BT volunteer Sandy Whitfield