James 1English Standard Version
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
2 Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grasslands he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
I think the ESV translation gets the tone of this letter, with its elegant and repetitious Greek, more or less right. James can be a difficult book if we read expecting logical argument or development, of which we will find nothing. No, James is writing wise instruction, following the style of the biblical books of wisdom, in which traditional sayings are brought to bear on contemporary circumstance. The author frequently circles round a topic, diverges from it a little, then returns. He writes as a Jew to Jews, dispersed into many parts of the world both before and after the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70CE.
Scholars have wondered whether the letter is directed to Christian or to Jewish believers, or whether a letter offering wise instruction to Jews has been edited for Christians. My guess is that the writer is a Christian believer who nevertheless makes no sharp distinction between Jews who follow Messiah Jesus and those who don’t. The letter is not addressed to any particular churches, but may have been circulated amongst Jewish/ Christian synagogues/assemblies.
Both Jews and Christian had difficulties within The Roman administration because of religion. Jews were declared a religio licita, a permitted religion, although they may have experienced persecution at times. Christianity was never permitted, but some administrations may have seen it as a form of Judaism.
To begin by instructing believers to count all their trials as joy is bold, because if you are suffering serious disadvantage you may want to punch the person who tells you this sort of thing. The writer does not like St. Paul justify his stance by pointing to his own trials, but rather simply conveys a traditional wisdom, which is seen as impersonal. Testing circumstances provoke the progressive growth of character among people who are willing to learn a difficult kind of perfection. This is not a popular wisdom today, where popular instruction is geared to success. The emergence of a class of people across many societies, who’ve never suffered and whose characters lack any depth at all, is a worrying contemporary development. They do not understand the kind of steadfastness that comes from hardship.
Poor people who endure testing times steadfastly are lifted up in the estimation of the community, while rich people, who have shown no endurance are humiliated. This kind of distinction between poor and rich, which is reminiscent of Jesus, is a feature of this letter. The imagery that depicts the humiliation of the rich is traditional and sad, rather than mocking. Steadfastness in the face of hardship is seen as an achievement of the human being that God will reward.
God neither tests nor tempts people, who are tested by the evil of others or tempted by their own wayward desires. It’s unclear how this author would interpret the story of the binding of Isaac or the sufferings of Job, which certainly suggest that God does sometimes test his most faithful servants. James wants to remove from the believer any justification for blaming God for the suffering they may endure.
From God only good comes to the world. Unlike human beings, God is always and alone the “father of lights” unchanging in goodness, part of which is the creation of the “twelve tribes” of Christian/ Jewish believers, who are the early fruit of God’s harvest, the first product of his creative evolution, begun by the “word of truth” which is the “let there be” of Genesis, but also the Jewish Torah and the gospel of Jesus.
We are not used to this sober wisdom today, and we may think it either too gloomy or too obvious. In fact it presents us with a tried and tested common sense that Jesus himself knew, appreciated and used. Traditionally the author is identified as James the brother of Jesus, known as the leader of the first Christian community in Jerusalem, murdered by the Romans.