This week’s lesson comes from the fourth chapter of James. The author is likely James the brother of Jesus. There are at least five other persons named James in the New Testament, so he is not to be confused with James the son of Zebedee or one of the four other lesser known. While he is the brother of Jesus, James is not referred to as a Disciple or Apostle. At the time of this book James is a leader in the Church at Jerusalem.
The book of James is one of the nine general epistles and considered to have “practical instructions for applied Christianity” (NBHB). This epistle is written to the church body at-large, not a specific person or church location. James is likely writing to Jewish Christians, but he “played a prominent role in the debate over the conditions under which non-Jews were to be considered members of the church” (NISB). Additionally, for this book, its Jewish character is evident when one notes that the source of moral virtue is wisdom received from God (NISB).
What takes place in this passage:
James is not writing to a specific person. Yet this chapter begins with a question that causes the reader to look within him or herself. “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you (NIV)”? These are tough words but true. James is telling us to look within ourselves to sort out how these conflicts occur. In the last part of chapter three James is dealing with two kinds of wisdom. He writes of earthly, unspiritual and devilish wisdom and the evils that spring from envy and ambition. He continues in chapter four bringing to mind wars, fighting, and murder. All of this springs from inside a person. Townsend Commentary writes that these are not just disagreements or intellectual differences that James is writing about but actual fights. Though it may apply, what James is writing about goes far beyond husband and wife or internal church disputes. This should bring to mind the idea of physical combat. Godly wisdom creates peace and unity, not division or discord. Godly wisdom does not lust for power, influence, and control. James is telling us to choose Godly wisdom over worldly wisdom.
James continues in verse 2b through 3 with a reminder that “you do not have because you do not ask God. And “when you ask, you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives”. So the idea is why do you do, what you do? Are your motives free from envy and evil ambition? Are you asking for something that will simply be consumed for your own wants and desires? So the reason, the motive, behind your request to God is what is important.
Verse four warns adulterers and adulteresses that being friends with the world is being friends with the enemy of God. Keep in mind that James just finished using terms that describe combat, fighting, and wars. Those who fraternize with the enemy are the enemy. James calls them adulterers. They are unfaithful, disloyal, and traitorous. But the broader question is how they have been unfaithful. And exactly what does being unfaithful mean? The New Interpreter’s Study Bible explains that James is most likely writing to Jewish Christians who have been oppressed by the rich and powerful. Perhaps James is saying unfaithfulness is to turn your back on those who are oppressed; to forget about those who suffer under the hand of the rich and powerful. “James 2:1-13 attacks any form of partiality shown toward the rich” (NISB). So envy, evil ambition, desires, and evil motives are ways people become friends with the world and enemies of God.
Verse 6 reinforces the idea that God gives grace to and cares for those who are humble. Compare this to what James has already said about those who envy and have evil ambition. Verses seven through ten deals with changes we must make to ensure we are not caught up with wrong motives, desires, and ambitions. James tells us to submit to God and if we resist the devil, the devil will flee from us. We resist by submitting to God; by following God’s commands and keeping our motives pure. Further, James tells us to draw near to God and God will draw near to us. So both sides of this coin are to resist the devil but also to draw near to God. He exhorts us to cleanse our hands, purify our hearts, and avoid double-mindedness. These are the practical instructions that lead to applied Christianity. Instructions like these are what help us understand why James says “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 2:20).
Sometimes hurt Christians will hurt Christians. As James writes this letter to Jewish Christians across the first century diaspora he provides practical instructions that help prevent today’s Christians from hurting other Christians. It is also instruction on preventing us from hurting other people whether Christian or not. He encourages us to use Godly wisdom not worldly wisdom. He encourages us to lookout for and care for one another, not just ourselves. He encourages us to submit to God and to resist evil influence of wealth, power, envy and evil ambition. We should be mindful that Godly wisdom creates peace and justice not wars, fighting’s, and murder. These are the result of injustice in the world and in our lives. So we should be ever mindful that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Martin Luther King Jr.). James exhorts us to submit to God and show the kind of love that resists the oppression of others and prevents injustice carried out by our own evil desires.
Key Characters in the text:
James – He is neither a Disciple nor an Apostle during the life of Jesus but becomes a leader in the church at Jerusalem. Mark 6:3 lists him as the first (oldest) of Jesus’ four younger brothers. As the brother of Jesus, James is Jewish.
Key Words (not necessarily in the text, but good for discussion):
Envy – Painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage.
Ambition – An ardent desire for rank, fame, or power.
Combat – A fight or contest between individuals or groups.
Motive – Something (such as a need or desire) that causes a person to act.
Themes in this Lesson:
- Why do you do, what you do?
- Evil motives cause injustice. Injustice causes fighting, wars, and murder.
- Choosing between friends. (Will you be a friend of God or the world?)
1. Justice creates peace. What are the results of injustice?
2. The term double-minded only appears in the book of James. It deals with the instability of someone who has doubts and is not sure. Is it sinful to doubt?
I sometimes say that if you do right by God and if you do right by God’s people you are on the track of righteousness. Doing right means taking action – works. James gives us practical advice on how to do right. Although Ephesians 2:8 tells us that we are saved by grace through faith, James reminds us that faith without works is dead.
Preview of Next Week’s Lesson: Next weeks lesson comes from Philippians. Under very difficult circumstances (while in prison) Paul writes to encourage believers to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Even in trying and difficult circumstances we are to demonstrate our love for God and advance the cause of Jesus Christ.