None of the Circumcision epistles so clearly indicates the class to whom it is written as the letter of James to the twelve tribes in the dispersion. Its conflict with Paul's epistles is so pronounced that Luther rejected its authority, and endless attempts have been made to find a means of reconciliation, without coming to any satisfactory solution. Once it is apprehended that this epistle is for a different people and a distinct administration, all need of reconciliation vanishes and we are not tempted to tone down Paul or drag up James to a common level.
The contrast between the ministry of James and that of Paul is graphically illustrated in their lives: Paul was born at a distance from the land of Israel, and had no relations with the Lord until after His ascension into heaven. James, on the contrary, was born of the same mother as the Lord, and lived in the land all his life. In Paul, the spiritual comes to the fore, in James, the physical.
The very name of James is suggestive. It is practically the same as Jacob, or Supplanter, who, in his career, exemplified the energy of the flesh, and whose name was changed to Israel when the flesh was subdued. The name was also applied to the nation when their crooked ways called for it rather than for the name Israel. Hence it may be taken to indicate the spiritual state of those to whom this epistle is addressed.
In the early part of Acts Peter has his rightful place at the head of the apostles, but, even as early as Paul's first visit to Jerusalem, James had a prominent place, though he was not an apostle ( Gal.1:19 ). Fourteen years later he had risen to be one of the pillars in Jerusalem and was named before Peter and John (Gal.2:9). Peter was afraid of some who came from James (Gal.2:12).
At the council in Jerusalem to consider the question of circumcising the nations and putting them under the law, James had the decisive word and formulated the decrees, which were hostile to the nations (Col.2:14), and which were nullified when the present secret administration was inaugurated (Eph.2:15).
At Paul's last visit to Jerusalem James was apparently the only one worth mentioning in authority in the city. The Lord's chosen apostles have disappeared and in their position, the people have placed one whose chief claim was his physical relation to our Lord. James rises in proportion to the depth of the nation's apostasy.
So that, at the close of Acts we have two men who embody the two divergent lines, the downward trend of Israel and the upward trend of the nations. Paul repudiates all physical relationship to Messiah and enters the realm of spiritual blessedness among the celestials (2 Co.516). James writes to adulterers and adulteresses (4:4), to those going from city to city trafficking and getting gain (4:13), to the rich who are hoarding in the last days (5:3).
In this light, we are able to understand the unusual approach to truth in this epistle. It begins with physical limitations and closes with physical healing. It teaches justification by works and lawkeeping. All these had their place in that failing economy, but let us beware that we do not adulterate the precious truth for the present with doctrines that primarily concern Israel in the last days.
There are three Jameses mentioned in the Greek Scriptures, James, the son of Zebedee, the first martyr among the Twelve (Acts 12:2); James the Less, the son of Alpheus (Mat.10:3); and the writer of this epistle.
1 James is never called an apostle and does not write this epistle in that character. Rather, he puts himself in the place of a slave. Hence the epistle is not concerned with authoritative teaching so much as with service.
1 Nothing can be plainer than the fact that this letter is addressed to a special class. It is not for the tribes in the land. It is absolutely impossible to apply it indiscriminately to the nations without causing the utmost confusion. It is solely and exclusively for the sons of Israel outside the land, in the dispersion.
2 The tumultuous times, the provocation and persecution of the Romans, the fanatical commotions of the Jews, the repeated insurrections and revolts in the land, all contributed to bring many trials upon those of the dispersion who espoused the cause of Christ. At one time Claudius commanded all Jews to depart from Rome (Ac.18:2), and those of the Circumcision who believed never ceased considering themselves Jews. The "Christians" were understood to be a Jewish sect.
3 It has been pointed out that the papyri sometimes use the word "testing" as an adjective, the equivalent of "tested" or "genuine", as it is in this passage and especially in 1 Pe.1:7, the only other occurrence. But it was not their faith which was producing endurance, but the testing of their faith. Hence the word has its usual grammatical force here. In Peter also, the Greek idiom, which we have tried to carry over into English, accounts for the difficulty, and allows us to translate the word uniformly. The papyri were mostly written in upper Egypt, far from the land of Israel and the countries to which the Scriptures were first sent. Not only are they tinged with local idiom, but were written loosely, as we write English in our everyday transactions, with little regard for the correctness and accuracy which characterize a divine revelation. They are no criteria as to the meaning of words which occur several times in the Scriptures, or are found in the Septuagint.
5 This letter records more of our Lord's teaching as recorded in the gospels than any other epistle.
5 Even faith is different in quality in James from that found in Paul's writings. Their faith is the necessary channel of grace, because it has no merit in itself. Here faith is more in the nature of a meritorious act, apart from which no blessing can be expected.
9 James doubtless has a very special application to Israel in the time of the end. At that time (we seem to be on the verge of it even now) there will be many wealthy men among the Jews, so that their combined riches will enable them to have "a kingdom over the kings of the earth". They will form a plutocracy such as the earth has never seen. Yet they will be destroyed in the fall of Babylon (Un.18). Some of God's people will be in the city (Un.18:4). James' warning seems to be most apt in the case of these. Should they lose their wealth in the destruction of the city, they would have nothing but their own allotment in the land. Even if not involved in Babylon's overthrow, it is impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom with his riches (Mk.l0:23), for the readjustments of that day will take his wealth from him.
12 Life, in James, is the result of endurance to the consummation. Hence it is figured by the victor's wreath. We cannot boast of our life in Christ, but, in the kingdom, life comes to those who overcome.
17 It is a fact that all physical blessing may be traced to the sun as its source. All life that teems on the earth is directly or indirectly dependent on it. Hence God is compared to the sun in His beneficence. All spiritual good comes down from Him just as all natural good descends from the sun. The moon, however, is not a source of light, but a mere reflection. It is inconstant, now full orbed and now a faint streak in the sky. The earth, too, in its turning, changes from light to darkness.
21 The salvation of the soul has to do with the feelings and experience, not, as is usually supposed, with ultimate destiny. The soul is the seat of sensations. If these are pleasant and agreeable, if there is comfort and joy, the soul is saved. To lose the soul is to part with the power of enjoyment.
26 The outward form of divine service, the rites and ceremonies of the sacerdotal system of Moses, was but the exterior shell of truth. It was the letter: truth was the spirit. The ritual was full of precious meaning. But most ritualists feed on the husks and throw away the kernel. It should have its counterpart in a righteous and beneficent life. With us, who serve God in spirit, and have no confidence in flesh, ritual is a relapse into the shadows, when we have the substance in Christ. We are warned against it in the epistle to the Colossians. "Now let no one be arbitrating against you who wants, in humility and the ritual of the messengers, to parade what he has seen, feignedly, puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding the Head. . ." (Col.2:18).
2 The word "synagogue" is translated "assembly" in the A. V. As it occurs over fifty times and is always (except once "congregation", Acts 13:43) rendered "synagogue" elsewhere, there is no real reason for rendering it otherwise here. It is significant of the fact that we have here, not an ecclesia, or called-out company, but a gathering based on physical relationship. For the synagogue was the gathering center of Jews, and Paul invariably separated his converts from it.
2 The scene here depicted could hardly be imagined outside the traditional synagogue of that early day, for the ecclesias or "churches" had not yet become as like the synagogues as those we know today. One of the signs of present apostasy is this spirit of toadying to the rich and despising the poor. It can have no place where our position in Christ is appreciated. A rich man who enjoys God's grace is pained by such partiality.
8 James writes to those under the law. Showing partiality to the rich and offending the poor is an infraction of the precept to be loving your associate as yourself But the law is not only intersocial. It has a divine side. A single transgression, no matter what it is, brings in a breach between the One Who gave the law and the culprit. The breaker of one commandment is not "guilty" of all, but enters into the same condemnation as those Who commit all the other crimes in its category.
14 James looks at faith entirely from the human side, Paul from the divine. What a man says he has, if he has it not, cannot, of course, save him. But James is not speaking of a pretended faith. He insists that faith apart from works is dead. He boldly says, "That faith cannot save him." Yet Paul is affirming that righteousness is through faith, that it may accord with grace (Ro.4:16). And he insists that if it is grace, it is no longer out of works, else grace comes to be no longer grace (Ro.11:6). The salvation to which James refers does not include justification, hence there is not the necessity for grace. Paul speaks of grace continually, and refers to it over a hundred times in his epistles. James only mentions it twice in one passage (4:6). James is dealing with a nation in covenant relationship with God, and an administration in which faith and works are mingled, whereas Paul is connected with the dispensation of unadulterated grace to those who have no claim on God whatever.
Such a combination as James insists on would do away entirely with all the blessings which have come to the nations on the ground of grace, for it is impossible for grace to operate except through sheer, unaided faith. It will not do to say that such faith is vital and must manifest itself in works. This is true, yet such works are in no sense the root of righteousness. They are the fruit. To add works to a dead faith would not vivify it.
Briefly, the differences between Paul and James are not to be explained away. They are irreconcilable contradictions if we take them to refer to the same divine administration and the same people. Left to their own time and place, there is no reason why they should agree. God is continually changing His methods, to conform to the various objects He has in view,
18 The solid foundation stands with this seal: "The Lord knew those who are His" (2 Ti.2:19). Suppose we do not know? That does not affect their salvation. God knows the heart and does not need any demonstration. Not so with men. Before we accept a man's faith we demand that he depart from iniquity. This is the ground of James. It is not what appears to the Lord, but to men.
20 The case of Abraham is most helpful in further defining the distinct viewpoints of Paul and James. The former refers us to the fifteenth chapter of Genesis, the latter to the twenty-second. In the fifteenth chapter Abram's spiritual seed alone is in view, for Abram is taken outside his tent and shown the stars of heaven. And the Lord said to him, "So shall your seed be." And he believed the Lord; and He counted it to him for righteousness. This was followed by the unconditional covenant.
The twenty-second chapter is a trial of the faith which he had, in that the seed through whom his promised posterity should come was to be sacrificed and slain. Here we have the perfecting of his faith and the fulfillment of the previous passage.
The fifteenth chapter deals with Abram before circumcision, and his spiritual seed, and their justification. The twenty-second chapter deals with Abraham after his circumcision, and his physical seed (some of whom would be spiritual also), and their blessing, as well as their becoming a channel of blessing to the other nations. Paul cannot take the latter passage because he speaks of faith righteousness to the uncircumcised in an era when no blessing flows through Abraham's physical seed. James naturally and rightly takes it because it is the one which refers especially to the twelve tribes to whom he is writing. It was Abraham's faith combined with his obedience which was the basis of their blessing, and it is their faith combined with works which saves them. The works of Abraham were meritorious only as an evidence of faith.
Let us leave this to those who belong to the Circumcision, who are Abraham's seed according to the flesh, and who live under the kingdom administration. We have an immeasurably better and higher place than can be accorded those who mix their own efforts with God's beneficence. His undiluted grace brings blessings which are possible only when God is left to carry out the dictates of His heart unhindered by human help.
It seems almost incredible to find such a low moral standard in this epistle, especially as works are demanded for salvation. The untamable tongue, cursing, jealousy, strife, battles, and fighting are all spoken of as common amongst the twelve tribes. They are charged as being friends of the world, sinners, impure of heart, and double-souled. What a contrast is this with such epistles as Philippians and Thessalonians, even though these are written to those who, but a short time before, were steeped in heathenism and idolatry! The pure grace of God, unaided by legal precepts or other inducements, is far more potent in producing conduct which is pleasing to God than all the efforts prompted by the desire for salvation or controlled by the terrors of the law.
9 Our conduct should accord with God's attitude. Now that grace reigns, we are told to bless and not to curse (Ro.12:14). But James seems to have no such precept in his royal law. The law curses all who break its commandments, and did not forbid cursing, so we should not be surprised when James includes the saints, "we are cursing men."
12 The fig, the olive, and the vine, are all symbols of Israel. The fig speaks of national righteousness. When our Lord saw a fig tree on the road He sought some figs, but finding none, He cursed the tree and it withered away. So He came seeking national righteousness. As there was none the nation has withered away. The olive, being the source of the illuminating oil in the holy places, is a symbol of the light of God's revelation, which comes through Israel. The olive tree is Israel, the nations are simply temporary grafts, while Israel is apostate. God's word is confided to our keeping only until Israel is restored. Israel was an empty vine. They did not cheer the heart of God or man. Christ came as the real Vine. In the kingdom, as in Cana of Galilee, there will be spiritual joy and gladness from the vine Jehovah planted.
4 There can be little doubt that the adultery here referred to is defined in the next statement. In the Hebrew Scriptures, an alliance with the world was often spoken of in this way. Its fullest and most fitting application will be in the time of the end. Israel, as a nation, was to be separate and holy to the Lord. Now that they are scattered among the nations they are not only in the world but of it. Their chief object is to get as much of this world's goods as possible, and they are ready to make any alliance to accomplish this end. There will be a strong temptation for the believers among them in that day to fall in with this prevailing apostasy. Some of them will be found in great Babylon when it is destroyed.
5 This passage has puzzled the commentators, and there are many and various explanations offered to solve what seems to be one of the most difficult passages in the Scriptures. A simple explanation, which allows a literal translation, is that the natural spirit of the Jew is to be envious. They are jealous of others' possessions or welfare. God uses this trait of their character in bringing them back to Himself. He provokes them to jealousy by dealing out grace to the nations. It is this envying of others' good which tempts them to make friends with the world, so that they may possess themselves of what seems so desirable in others. The attainment of this longing produces pride.
6 The preceding verses contain one of the strongest possible indictments. In this, there breathes a different spirit from that usually found in the epistle. Grace follows severity. Though God's love is outraged he does not readily spurn the faithless. He offers a grace conditioned on obedience and humility.
8 When we are still sinners, Christ died for us (Ro.5:8). The whole tenor of Paul's epistles is against the application of this term to the believer in Christ Jesus. The exhortation to cleanse their hands cannot but suggest that they have been employed in defiling pursuits.
15 The abbreviation D. V., from the Latin Deo volente, God being willing, probably had its origin in this passage. It is one of the most characteristically Jewish pictures in the whole epistle. Who are like them in going from city to city, trafficking, and getting gain?
1 This is a most unpopular passage, for the church, in its spiritual poverty, caters to the rich, and does not desire to offend them by pressing this denunciation. And, indeed, it is evident that it cannot be applied universally without great injustice to some. But if we apply it to the last days, and to the sons of Israel in the coming era of Jacob's affliction, its full force is readily seen, and its just condemnation can be easily conceded. The immense accumulations of the Jews are being continually augmented by pandering to the lowest passions of the gentile peoples. Almost all forms of diversion and amusement are in their hands. No wonder such riches are rotted! Their income from interest alone equals the world's production of gold, so that they receive, without any effort on their part, all the gold that is mined. Their grasping for gain has become a proverb. No other people' as a class, is as shrewd and unscrupulous in making money. This condition of affairs is continually growing, so that, at the time of the end, it will be the most prominent feature of Judaism. Hence, if James' epistle is especially designed for that day, as we believe, it is a striking confirmation to find this strong denunciation of the rich Israelites as a part of its message.
7 The "presence" of the Lord is specially applied to that period of time, at the opening of the day of the Lord, when He begins His work of judgment up to His open manifestation. Then will be the judgment of the rich men, and its close will witness the reward of those who patiently plod on for the prize. In that era, He will act as Judge (9), for it is in this character that He purges His people. How much better is our expectation! We are awaiting a Saviour (Phil.3:20), not a Judge. Rich or poor, for us there is no condemnation.
11 The supreme exhortation to the Circumcision is endure. Salvation itself depends on enduring until the consummation. This is the natural accomplishment of the gospel of the kingdom in which faith and works are both essential. In fact, faith and works combine to produce endurance. Without faith, there would be no incentive to continue, and those who are striving would lose heart. With us, the emphasis is on believe. Faith in God is the ground of grace which allows of no admixture of works, so far as salvation is concerned.
12 This prohibition is essentially the same as that given by our Lord (Mt.5:34).
15 "The prayer of faith will save the sick" is a very loose rendering of this passage. The word which they translate "prayer" thirty-seven times is not here. In its place is one of its elements, which the A. V. itself renders "vow" on the only other occasions on which it occurs (Ac.18:18, 21:23). In neither context can it possibly mean prayer. So we are sure that a vow, not a prayer, is intended here.
So, also, with the word "falter". In Heb12:3, the only other occurrence, they rendered it "wearied", because it is evidently a synonym of "faint". But they were not willing to say "shall save the wearied". It may be that the confession of sins to one another here inculcated, as a condition for healing, is the text which originally led to the confessional. It has no appeal for those who realize their completeness in Christ and the exclusively spiritual character of God's transcendent grace in this economy.
17 Elijah prayed in his prayer. He did not apportion praise and blame to men, or seek to flatter men and dictate to God.
18 This epistle, in a vague way, seems to be a literary reversal, that is, each subject is considered once in the first half, and referred to again in the second half, but in reverse order. We have the request for wisdom in the beginning (1:5) and the prayer for healing near the end (5:13-16). But the correspondences are not sufficiently close or consecutive to create a real skeleton of the epistle.
19-20 The peril of straying will be specially great in the last days (Un.2:20, 12:9, 13:14). The ministry of restoration will be necessary. A deceived is in a worse plight than a sick man. The elders may help the latter, anyone may help the former. The ministry is its own reward. It does not mean that one can cover his own sins by trying to correct other people–a too common practice, we fear.