An exegetical commentary on the Greek New TestamentPDF eBook
A complete copy of this exegetical commentary on the Greek text of James is available for download as a 134p A5 PDF eBook,. Follow the link at the bottom of the page.
The letter of James is a highly practical work, simple and imaginative in its teaching. For this reason it is a very popular book with believers, although a book that has stirred controversy. Those who don't like the book, and Martin Luther was one of its strongest critics, argue that it promotes justification by works. Such a view, of course, is quite unfair. James simply proclaims that "faith is not true faith unless it is the motive power that produces Christian living", Mitton.
The structure of James
Genuine faith yields good fruit
Address and greeting, 1:1
1. The marks of a wise believer, 1:2-27
i] Christian maturity, 1:2-18
ii] Doers of the Word, 1:19-27
2. Poverty and Generosity, 2:1-26
i] Favoritism is destructive, 2:1-13
ii] Faith without works is a dead thing, 2:14-26
3. Taming the tongue, 3:1-4:12
i] The destructive power of the tongue, 3:1-12
ii] Disputes are of worldly wisdom, peace is of the wisdom from above , 3:13-18
iii] Disputes derive from worldly passions, 4:1-6
iv] Humility and slander, 4:7-12
4. Worldliness and wealth, 4:13-5:6
i] The danger of arrogance and self-sufficiency, 4:13-17
ii] The danger of wealth, 5:1-6
5. General matters, 5:7-12
Patience in the face of suffering and oaths, 5:7-12
6. Forgiveness and restoration, 5:13-20
The prayer of faith and the restoration of an erring brother, 5:13-20
In Luther's judgment, James is a chaotic work where the author just "throws things together". Modern commentators have tended to move from this rather negative view. Some, like Dibelius, see a semblance of structure (an examination of collected sayings on particular subjects and treatises on particular issues), while others, like Davids, or McCartney argue for a highly organized thematic work. Others head for the middle ground, for example, Moo identifies some key themes (testing, suffering) supported by supplementary themes (wisdom, Godly speech, faith, humility, the law, ..), which themes are intertwined in a series of major and minor relatively independent exhortations. So, it seems best to approach James as a thematic collection of sayings / instructions on Christian living, cf., Davids.
Author and date
Although the letter is ascribed to James, the identify of this person is unknown. Early Christian tradition has the letter written by James of Jerusalem, "the Lord's brother", but this has been questioned in recent times. It is often argued that the writer is not well acquainted with Paul's doctrine of justification and that therefore the letter must be a late composition, say 80AD (it seems likely that Clement, writing in 95AD, has a knowledge of James). Then again, it could be early, say 40AD, written at a time when the church was primarily Jewish and as yet unaware of Paul's understanding of justification. If James of Jerusalem is the author, then the letter was composed before 62AD, the year James was martyred.
It is generally accepted that James wrote primarily to Jewish believers who, as the NIV puts it, were "scattered among the nations", ie., believing Jews of the diaspora aligned to Hellenistic Judaism. None-the-less, Christianity in the first century was very Jewish and so the language used by James does not necessarily exclude Gentiles. There is evidence that the recipients are facing persecution, but their difficulties are often overstated. James seems more concerned with the world getting into the church, than of the world oppressing it.
Up till recent times, James was classed as a general letter addressed to no specific church, nor addressed to a specific situation. As such, it is more an ethical treatise than a letter. James is virtually a collection of ethical exhortations (sayings and sermons) arranged in a number of literary segments with limited internal relationships and virtually no external relationship (other than a common theme). Some commentators have argued that James is a highly organized thematic work, but this seems overly optimistic. James is best classified as wisdom literature, in fact, what we have in James is the New Testament version of Old Testament Wisdom literature like Proverbs.
James sets out to guide believers in the practice of their Christian profession by providing a wise and practical guide on Christian living. We live in a pagan world such that our faith will constantly be tested by secularizing influences, so James encourages his readers to take onboard the ethics of God's Word, to live it out rather than adapt to the ways of the world, a world inclined to show favoritism, to engage in destructive talk; to quarrel; to covet; to pursue unbridled pleasure; .... A faith that does not issue in deeds is dead, so James guides his readers with a practical manual for a life of faith; a how-to on resisting evil, being patient in suffering, speaking the truth, prayer, ........ James sets out help his readers put their faith into practice and so find a path for living wisely in a world falling apart.
Wisdom in the book of James
Wisdom is a religious philosophy of practical knowledge for survival in an imperfect world. It was particularly influential in the ancient Middle East up to the first century AD. Its primary principal is karma, cause and effect - good follows good, evil follows evil. In the Old Testament, the best example of Wisdom is Proverbs. It provides the practical advice for a child of God to live out their faith in an imperfect, and at times, hostile environment. Its principle rule, repeated over and over again, is that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom - wisdom starts with a person's relationship with God. From that starting point, a person who acts wisely will see good follow good and evil follow evil - right (reward, blessings) follows the right acts of the righteous. Of course, life is not so simple, because evil often follows good. The book of Job wrestles with this very problem for us and provides a simple solution: in the end, good follows good because God is a good and all-powerful God, and so, when faced with evil times, the child of God must continue to trust that God will do right by the righteous person who acts rightly. Ecclesiastes adds a touch of nuance to this philosophy by reminding the child of God of the vanity of the good / reward / blessings of this age. The blessings of life in God's world are wondrous, and indeed, are to be enjoyed, but let the child of God remember, it's all dust blown on the wind - a vanity of vanities.
This then is Jame's perspective; James gives us the Christian version of Wisdom. Given the way people have treated his treatise in the past, I'm sure, if given the opportunity to revisit his work, James would remind the readers that it is not a book on how to become a Christian, it is not about how to get to heaven by being good. James' book is about being a Christian; it provides practical advice for life in a broken world.
James Christian version of Wisdom assumes the basic principle that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, ie., when it comes to living in God's world, the starting point is a personal relationship with the living God through faith in Jesus. Given the obvious, and within a Wisdom frame, James sets out to explain how a 1st century righteous person can live wisely / rightly and so see right / reward / blessing follow, if not here, then certainly in heaven. And yes, sometimes evil follows good, but God will ultimately set all things right. And yes, in the end, the good of this age is transitory.
The issue of reward
The issue that bothers believers today, particularly for those from a reformed background, is the notion of reward. Underling the fact that God is a just God (a right acting God who sets all things right), the Old Testament reveals the principle of reward, of payment for good or evil, but with the qualification that good or evil is not automatically materially rewarded, cf., Deut.28. The New Testament emphasizes this qualification, particularly evident in Jesus encounters with the Pharisees. Yet, although divine mercy transcends reward in the gospel, the principle remains and is particularly evident in James - right follows the right acts of the righteous, if not here, certainly in heaven. We know that all our right acts do not equal righteousness in the sight of God; righteousness is a gift of God through faith in the faithfulness / righteousness of Christ - we know that and James knows that. Yet, Wisdom tells us that every act has a consequence, either here or there, either for good or for evil, so let the wise person act wisely; James tells us how.
And what is the reward for the right acts of the righteous? At the day-to-day level, karma will often apply; good tends to follow good and evil tends to follow evil. And what about heavenly reward, that accumulated "treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys"? A Dr. Who fan may argue that the reward amounts to greater responsibilities evidenced in the power and size of their Tardis, and maybe there's a smidgin of truth in that, cf., Matt.25:14:30. Yet, in the end, there can be no greater reward than to hear the words "Well done thou good and faithful servant", words declared by the Ancient of Days to Jesus as he leads us through the gates of the eternal city.
Faith and works
Luther was very suspicious of James since, against Paul who teaches that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law, Rom.3:28, he felt that James taught that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone, 2:24. When we dig into the teachings of Paul and James we find that they are not diametrically opposed. At the center of James' argument is his contention that genuine faith issues in godliness, "faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by works, is dead", 2:20. Paul would agree, cf., Gal.5:6.
Given the new perspective on Paul promoted by Sanders, Wright and Dunn, there is the suspicion that James, like so many of the Jewish teaches that Jesus had to contend with, is a nomist, ie., he teaches that a person gets into the kingdom by grace through faith, but staying in and progressing their Christian life depends on obedience. In Galatians and Romans, Paul addresses the heresy of nomism, a heresy promoted by the members of the circumcision party (the judaizers). These pietistic Christians believed that although a person is justified (set right before God, judged covenant compliant) on the basis of Christ's faithfulness ("faith of Christ") appropriated through faith, law-obedience ("works of the law" - obedience to the law of Moses) is essential to restrain sin and shape holiness (sanctify) for a believer to move forward in the Christian life and so appropriate the fullness of new life in Christ (the promised Abrahamic blessings - the gift of the Spirit, etc.). As far as Paul is concerned, "a person is not justified by observance of the law, but rather by faith in the faithfulness of Christ (the atonement). For this reason, we have put our trust in Christ Jesus so that our justification might rest on Christ's faithfulness rather than our own", Galatians 2:15.
So, is James a nomist? James is not devaluing faith to promote law-obedience for blessing, ie., he is not a nomist. If anything, he is addressing lawless believers. The problem James confronts is anti-nomism, libertarianism. Yet even so, it is not a libertarianism driven by an anti-Pauline theology, but messy ethics compromised by the pressure of a corrupt secular environment. James sets out to explain how to live wisely for Jesus in a world rampant with temptations to sin, so he puts the case that it generally goes well for a person who applies God's manual for life. Anyone who thinks it's going to go well for them because they have faith, apart from deeds, is a fool. A genuine faith issues in wise deeds; "faith without works is dead", 2:26.
FAITH = RIGHTEOUSNESS = BLESSINGS = WORKS
FAITH = RIGHTEOUSNESS = BLESSINGS = WORKS
Paul's addresses those who believe:
FAITH = RIGHTEOUSNESS + WORKS = BLESSINGS
James' addresses those inclined to believe:
FAITH = RIGHTEOUSNESS = BLESSINGS - (minus) WORKS
These definitions are Pauline, and despite the protests of Luther and friends, it is more than likely that James would happily affirm them. None-the-less, given that the issues facing James' community are different to those of Paul's, James will often use these words with a different contextual meaning, eg., "righteousness", the theological sense, "a justified state of being right with God", can drift toward "conduct which is pleasing to God"; also "faith", primarily James is Pauline, but sometimes his use of the word drifts toward "the Christian faith, sound doctrine", ie., what we believe in.
FAITH: ek pistewV eiV pistin, "from the faith / faithfulness of Christ toward our faith response." Faith entails the linkage of eiV Criston Ihsoun episteusamen, "we have come to believe in Jesus Christ" (our faith / reliance upon the grace of God), and this operative dia pistewV Ihsou Cristou, "through the faith of Christ" / by means of the faith / faithfulness of Christ, Gal.2:16. So, FAITH = Christ's faith / faithfulness (his atoning sacrifice on our behalf) and our faith-response.
RIGHTEOUSNESS: Right standing before God, "covenant compliance", Dumbrell, "uprightness", Fitzmyer; "(the state of) rectification", Martyn. Gaining the condition of righteousness is expressed by the verb "justified", just-if-I'd never sinned, which word takes one or all of the following shades of meaning:
• "confer a righteous status on", Cranfield;
• judge as covenant compliant, "judged in the right with God", Dumbrell, "count/treat as right/righteous", Barrett;
• "set right before God", Bruce, "rectify", Martyn. (NP = a divine declaration of covenant membership).
BLESSINGS: The promised blessings of the covenant / the fullness of new life in Christ.
WORKS: Paul, following Jesus' lead, uses the term to describe submission to the law of Moses, extending to God's law in general (NP = Jewish badges of covenant membership, eg. Sabbath law, circumcision), which law serves the following ends:
• to expose sin and so reinforce a reliance on divine grace expedited through faith;
• to guide the life of a child of God.
Bibliography: Commentaries - James and Jude
Adam, HGT, Baylor, 2013. Adamson, NICNT, 1976. Blackman, Torch. Blomburg, ZECNT, 2008. Brosend, NCBC. Davids, NIGTC, 1982. Davids, NIBC, 1983. Dibelius, Hermeneia, 1975. German ed., 1964. Hamann, ChiRho, 1980. Hiebert, Moody. Hort, Macmillan, 1909, Cambridge digital, 2009. Johnson, Anchor, 1995. Kistemaker, Baker. Laws, Blacks, 1980. Mayor, Macmillan, 1913, reprint Zondervan, 1954. Martin, Word, 1988. McCartney, BECNT, 2009. McKnight, NICNT, 2011. Mitton, Marshall Morgan & Scott. 1966. Moffatt, MNTC, 1928. Moo, Tyndale, 1985. Moo, Pillar, 2000. Moo, EGGNT, 2013. Reicke, Anchor, 1964. Ropes, ICC, 1916. Ross, NICNT (London), 1954. Replaced. Sidebottom, NCB. Tasker, Tyndale, 1956, replaced. Vlachos, EGGNT, 2013. Williams, CBC.