The letter from James deals with many attributes important to Walking in the Way. Its firm conviction is believing in God and faith in His works, as well as the acceptance of his elder brother, Jesus, as Messiah. From these foundational faith notions, James delineates relative to practice, or the proper pathway itself. Because of the emphasis concerning the practice or discipline itself, many Christians and others view James as minimizing faith and improperly accentuating works; this would be an incorrect viewpoint, as James clearly directs man toward constructive behavior combined with a unified faith practice.
James (Ya’akov) has always been considered the eldest of the brothers of Jesus, after Jewish tradition he is mentioned first in Matthew 13.55. James’ position as chief rabbi of the Messianic Jewish Synagogue (Jerusalem) defines his authority and accredits his status as a Torah teacher. He spoke for Nazarene adherents and was known as a Tzaddik, or wise man, even among those who were non-messianic Jews. The family of Jesus was well-educated in traditional teachings, as was Jesus himself.
As is indicated in John 7.2-5, James’ conversion did not come forth immediately. It seems clear that even in Galilee (Jn. 7.9) Jesus’ family and others feared the influence of “the Jews,” Jn. 7.13; that is, no one would speak openly on behalf of Jesus for fear of retaliation, such as being kicked out of the synagogue, or worse. It is not known when James converted to his brother’s ascendancy. However, in I Corinthians, v.15.7, he most definitely would have, for after appearing to the disciples and the five hundred, Jesus appears before James.
The Epistle of James is presented as Torah based, but with conversion to Jesus as Messiah. His address is intended to instruct from the viewpoint of familiarity, as all of his audience remained Jewish at the root. Therefore, his writing contains basic teachings found in the five books of Moses. Since his congregation is relatively new, his speaking is instructional, but underneath carries a mild inspiration—cautious, but with fulness.
Faith is an emphasis of James’ written work, but not as we might at first think. No mention is made of Jesus as Savior, which will later become the predominant faith theme of the later Christian church. James speaks of perseverance (Jm. 1.3, also patience), having a faith that treats all men equally (Jm. 2.1.5). Jm. 1.18 infers faith as the “Word that can be relied upon,” and faith extended to make us as first fruits. Right actions are considered a part of faithfulness, and thus his teaching does not conflict with the Pauline preachment, which also encourages right action or faithful actions.
That James’ speaking moves from within the root of Jewish law, at first presents a perplexity for many Christian readers. James seems to speak from what was and not from what now is, at least as the true believer would observe it. However, this misses the point of James’ importance. Trusted by Jesus, James would be the most knowledgeable in Torah interpretation and teaching. James will make the final decision concerning Paul’s ministry unto the Gentiles, as opposed to Peter who is sent out to the Jews. It is James who is the first bishop of the transitional church. James will determine what Jewish laws do not have to be followed by Gentiles, thus assisting the structure of the formative church no longer Jewish. James is seldom mentioned as the pivotal logo of the early church.
James becomes potent within the Jewish community, it is the Sadducees and Pharisees along with an aroused populous who martyr James in AD 62.
For those who walk the enlightenment pathway, perseverance cannot be emphasized enough. Perseverance reflects the core of faith, continuing on even while not-knowing. “Testing of your trust produces perseverance” (Jm. 1.3); and v. 4, “But let perseverance do its complete work; so that you may be complete and whole, lacking in nothing.”* Trusting in God yields greater perseverance, regardless of setbacks or emotional distress.
Faith concerning deeds, more correctly interpreted as ‘actions’,* operates within a relationship with God. Opposed is faith not acted upon, and not acting cannot further a relationship with God.
The King James reads:
Jm. 1.3, “Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.
4 But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.”
*The Complete Jewish Study Bible (highly recommended for accurate interpretation); note, ‘complete and whole’ as opposed to ‘perfect and entire’.
The attribute of faith relies upon a relationship with God, relating to His kingdom within, and further, the witnessing of His spirit within. Faith without witnessing can turn brave men sour. As faith is ongoing, so the witnessing from within (of that faith) must also be ongoing. Faith will meet tribulation, no doubt, but faith reinstilled becomes a faith that is witnessed once more.
Should the witnessing fail, or the direction or purpose thwarted or lost, remain faithful and realize a change may be needed. James illustrates a few good examples. In 2.13, “For judgment will be without mercy toward one who doesn’t show mercy; but mercy wins out over judgment. (14) What good is it, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith but has actions to prove it?” In this case, the action is directed toward judgment, which anyone can render, but the true or faithful action is to render judgment with consideration of the circumstance, or even greater mercy.
Similar to Jesus explaining how the farmer sows, which is with expectation, James in his own manner explains the faith of actions—take the basis of faith and renew your sowing, renew your good deeds. Such active measures of faith bridge to further fields ripe for harvest. Countering the value of sowing, it is a vanity that one should expect good outcomes with having done nothing (sins of omission, lazy soul nature).
Of its nature faith extends itself into the circumstance, and performs much like the forerunner of things to come. For this blossoming to occur faith will require actions that bespeak faith. A person may have some substance of faith as a reservoir, but without expression in circumstance, faith remains dead. James goes on to explain in 2.20 that faith without actions is dead. Here an important principle is explained: that which is activated has life or is working; that which is not activated, remains potential, with the fruits of that second kind of faith delivered haphazardly.
Trust, and do not doubt, “for the doubter is like a wave in the sea being tossed and driven by the wind” (1.6). Doubt will fill the vacuum of faith should faith leave (omission), and doubt will eventually become a man’s companion. All endeavors in life should be undertaken with a measure of faith. Else the person becomes “double-minded, unstable in all his ways,” (v.9). Thus, continuity and perseverance have much in common. Perseverance is considered continuing while under stress, while continuity is considered day-to-day. Both perseverance and continuity rely upon faith as a foundation. Continuity is important in daily spiritual expression and behavior.
In v. 14 James refers to perseverance related to temptation, and “each person is tempted whenever he is dragged off and enticed by the bait of his own desire.“ Desire is denoted as bait, and the word of caution ‘dragged off’, lies underneath. In modern Christianity, desire is usually taught as simply not engaging the desire. James, however, defines desire as ‘bait’. He defines desire as the person having ownership, it comes from the individual. Sowing the seed to end desire or excess would be an action James would approve of, as he would want to engender the spirit within.
Longstanding questions concerning Cain and Abel interject themselves here, as well as in the whole history of the Bible. Whether we observe desire in the physical or see it in the spiritual, James makes it clear that unrighteous desire comes from within, and remains at hand. “Sin crouches beside you,” God warns Cain. Once the desire is conceived, birth to sin is given (v.15), and when fully grown “gives birth to death.” So it is that by continued faith, including faithful actions that desire (sin) becomes removed and perseverance abides. “Don’t delude yourselves, my dear brother,” James concludes.