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James 3:1-18 The Practice of Personal Discipline: Overview
James insisted that Christians show their obedience to God by controlling their tongues and all of their
desires. He explained that the tongue had great power for both good and evil (3:3-6). He also pointed out the
stubbornness (3:7-8) and inconsistency of the tongue (3:9-12). He urged his readers to demonstrate heavenly
wisdom rather than earthly wisdom. Earthly wisdom produced envy and selfish ambition. Heavenly wisdom
produced peacemakers who were merciful and considerate of one another (3:13-18).
Introduction: This week‟s study focuses on the power of words for good and bad. Besides biblical teaching
on speech, the tongue, and words, today we are impacted by the views of words in our culture. You may
have noticed at least two recent trends. First, some people are concerned about political correctness, or
avoiding any speech that might offend someone. Second, others let the pressure of words cause them to
ventilate or rant about whatever bothers them. The Bible often counsels us to be careful about what we say.
The old children‟s song include the advice “Be careful little lips what you say.”
1 Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment,
2 for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is
also able to control his whole body.
3 Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal.
4 And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small
rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.
5 So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a
small fire ignites.
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6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our
bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.
7 Every sea creature, reptile, bird, or animal is tamed and has been tamed by man,
8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
KEY WORDS: A world of unrighteousness (v. 6)—Uncontrolled words activate all the world‟s
wickedness. A restless evil (v. 8)—The Greek term rendered restless is translated unstable in 1:8. The
tongue is treacherous, inconsistent, and uninhibited, always looking for trouble and creating mischief.
Our words communicate. They reveal who we are, where we are going, what we believe. We shape our
words and our words shape us.
James opened this section by addressing the role and the responsibility of teachers, an office within the
church. Addressing his readers as my brothers indicated his instructions were intended for all believers.
Regarding teaching, he implied that few were called to be teachers and a severe warning of stricter
judgment was in effect for those who teach. A teacher has great responsibility in communicating God‟s
truth. A teacher must know the Scriptures and apply them to life. The teacher‟s utensil is words. But, all
believers have the responsibility to watch what they say. The mature person controls the whole body,
including the tongue. The verb for keeping the body under control also refers to bridling and controlling a
James employed three word pictures to illustrate the magnitude of our words. First, our words are as
strong as the bits in horses‟ mouths. Although small, the bit is highly influential. Hughes observes, “A
horse is half a ton of raw power! Yet, place a bridle and bit in its mouth and a 100-pound woman on its
back who knows what she is doing and the animal can literally be made to dance.”1
Likewise, our words
have the potential to control the direction of our life and others‟ lives. When our words are out of control,
they have the potential to inflict great damage.
Second, our words are as powerful as a rudder that guides a great ship. In comparison to the ship, the
rudder is very small. Yet it can control a large ship, even in a storm. Whoever controls the rudder controls
Third, our words are as damaging as fire. Here the metaphor is not neutral. It only takes a spark to get a
fire going. Many a forest has been destroyed because of a careless camper or a reckless motorist. In
similar manner, a careless word can destroy a life overnight. Gossip, slander, and rumor spread quickly,
wreaking havoc. False teaching can have malevolent consequences on believers and churches. As fire
burns and hurts, so can one‟s words. And like fire, the more fuel you give it, the faster and farther it will
spread. We might confess our sins of speech, but the fire might keep on spreading.
James‟s point with these three illustrations is the incredible contrast between the size of the object and
the magnitude of the outcome. The bit, rudder, fire, and tongue are each comparatively small, but each can
produce monstrous consequences.
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When uncontrolled, the tongue pollutes a life. Our words can stain or defile us spiritually and morally,
leading us to evil. Once thus contaminated, we become part of the wickedness that dominates the world
with its true nature being an extension of hell. Hell translates the Greek Gehenna, the ravine south of
Jerusalem that served as a garbage dump with fires burning continuously and popularly believed to be the
place of future judgment. Scripture identifies hell as the place where the wicked will be punished in the
next world. In another powerful image, James insisted the tongue is a fire. Words that spark great fires of
conflict and dissension have their source in another fire—hell.
Course may mean wheel, indicating the whole of life and living. Life can indicate birth or origin. Our
words affect the cycle of life from birth onward. They create a chain reaction. The devastating effects of
our words, once loosed, are beyond our control, potentially bringing corruption to our total life and other‟s
Still building his case against the damaging and uncontrollable nature of words, James identified four
classifications of animals (those that can swim, crawl, fly, or walk) that have been tamed or subdued.
While these animals have been tamed, the tongue can‟t be. In fact, it is a restless evil. Interestingly, James
employed the same word translated restless in 1:8 where it is translated unstable. Like a wild animal that
seeks, stalks, seizes, and slaughters its prey, so do uncontrolled words. Wild animals are unpredictable—
like our words. One moment our mouths can utter peaceful and tranquil words; the next moment our
mouths can spew venom.
When people strike with words, intending to harm and destroy, again like a wild animal, the words are
full of deadly poison. The word for poison means venom. Only a few drops can kill. Many a person has
been assassinated by another‟s words. Poison‟s deceptive nature is that it works secretly and slowly, then
kills. Poisonous words can do great damage to people, churches, and families. No one would turn a hungry
lion or an angry snake loose in their homes or their churches, yet uncontrollable people with poisonous
words are loose all around. Unruly tongues devastate.
9 We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God‟s likeness with it.
10 Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way.
11 Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening?
12 Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring
yield fresh water.
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KEY WORDS: Praising and cursing (v. 10)—The tongue can heal or wound, speak the fairest or the
foulest utterances, be used by God or by Satan, or praise or condemn.
To further drive home the inconsistent nature of our words, James stressed that the same mouth utters
blessing and cursing. In other words, our speech can have both a positive and negative quality. With our
words we praise or speak well of God, and can curse people. Cursing includes abusive and insulting
speech, as well as that which is profane or calls down evil on another. It reveals our inconsistency of
speech, the double standard of using our words to extol God and to malign people God created. James
offered a strong rebuke. This inconsistency should not exist in a believer‟s speech.
Then, James looked to nature to further drive home the inconsistency of words. One would not find a
single spring spewing forth both fresh water and salt water. Neither will a tree produce two different kinds
of fruit. Nature is consistent. Whatever is in the spring comes out in the water. Whatever is in the tree
comes out in the fruit. James got to the heart of the matter by revealing that what is in the heart of a person
will come out in his words. If our words are inconsistent, there is something radically wrong with the
heart. What‟s inside will eventually come out.
Sometimes people get angry and say hurtful things, then seek to rationalize their words by saying it is
not like them to say such things. James would say that it is just like them—for whatever is inside will
come out. A spring doesn‟t yield fresh water one minute and salt water the next. That would be
inconsistent. It is not natural.
13 Who is wise and has understanding among you? He should show his works by good conduct with
14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, don‟t brag and deny the truth.
15 Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.
16 For where envy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every kind of evil.
17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good
fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy.
18 And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace.
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Since we have to use words in daily life, and since our natural bent is to use our words in an unhealthy
if not destructive way, what are we to do? James provided guidance to consider before we speak to others.
Four times in this section James used the words wise or wisdom. Wisdom carries a practical element or
moral discernment in making correct and upright decisions based on God‟s Word. As powerful as the
tongue is, wisdom is more powerful. A wise person demonstrates good conduct and gentleness. The wise
person demonstrates a spirit of meekness, resulting in the power of their words being under control. This
person lives by positive attitudes, godly actions, and uplifting words. Such a one uses words that
communicate what is best, seeking to accomplish good in all relationships. His words and actions are
consistent. In other words, his talk matches his walk.
The opposite of such character and conduct results in jealousy, selfishness, bragging, and disregard for
truth-telling. The word bitter means contentious or controversial while the word envy indicates a divisive
or partisan spirit. Such behavior is not from God; in fact, it is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. The last
term includes both action by Satan himself and resistance to God and His Spirit by people. Such words
and behavior produce disorder and evil. The word translated disorder is related to the word unstable in
1:8 and restless in 3:8. A person harboring these traits is self-centered, desiring personal gain and selfish
agendas. Such speech leads to unhealthy community, at least, and chaos and confusion, at worst. If left
unchecked, such speech causes riots and insurrection, not to mention warring families, split churches, and
The wisdom needed to speak to others properly will be characterized by eight qualities. The first
quality is pure or holy desires, pertaining to whatever is of God. Peace-loving communicates a strife-free
lifestyle with others, living in a harmonious spirit, the opposite of envy-induced disorder. Gentle or
patient behavior is needed. Compliant describes not a passiveness but a readiness to yield intentionally in
actions that lead to peace. Such a person is open to reason and prepared to learn from the knowledge,
experience, and wisdom of others. Full of mercy means not holding grudges against others for their sins,
but instead demonstrating compassion to them and others in distress. Good fruits; that is, righteousness,
are needed as an antidote to the “deadly poison” (v. 8) of the tongue. Without favoritism means
responding to others in an impartial way, without prejudice. Demonstrating no hypocrisy means living an
honest or genuine life without pretense, where actions match words and truth is sought. A person with this
trait is genuine with others. People demonstrating these qualities will relate to others in ways that banish
discord and disunity. The result will be the fruit of righteousness that produces peace in relationships and
protects Christian unity. In other words, a commitment to relational accord and church unity will be
The challenge for believers is to use our words in ways that honor God and promote goodwill and
better relations with one another. In many regards, believers are in the pressure cooker every day faced
with a choice to use words in a positive and godly way for the benefit of themselves and others.
In order for that to happen on a consistent basis, we need to seek God‟s wisdom and allow Him to
control our words. This deep-seated understanding comes from God, enabling us to live and to speak
according to His standards and His Word. To speak with wisdom we don‟t need tongue transplants, we
need heart transplants. The tongue only reveals what‟s in the heart. To speak with wisdom, allow God to
change the heart, giving a new spirit, a new attitude, and a new outlook. Then, we need a mind renewal
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Since all sin, including the sins of the tongue, originates inside us, we need the mind of Christ in order
to speak blessing, striving for peace in our relationships. The mind of Christ comes from the Word of God.
Daily we allow God‟s Word to saturate our minds with God‟s wisdom as we read, reflect, and recall
God‟s truth, promises, and instructions. We also need moment by moment assistance that comes as we
Each day we ask for God‟s help to control our tongues and manage our mouths. Wisdom realizes that
we need a higher and stronger power to control our words. We can‟t accomplish it on our own. The
psalmist offered wise words to practice as we pray—asking God to set “a guard” for our mouths and to
“keep watch” at the “door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3). That would be a great verse to memorize. The last bit of
wisdom is very practical: Think before you speak. Earlier in his book, James wrote that everyone must be
“quick to hear, slow to speak” (Jas. 1:19). The order is essential: first listen, then speak. When we reverse
the order and speak before listening, feelings get hurt and anger ensues. So think before you speak.
Recently, I was in the office of one of our church‟s administrative assistants. Hanging on the bulletin
board behind her desk, a plaque in bold print read: “Before you speak THINK.” Following that statement
were a series of questions using THINK as an acrostic: “Is it True? Is it Helpful? Is it Inspiring? Is it
Necessary? Is it Kind?” Not bad advice! James would agree with that instruction and urge all believers to
think before they speak so wisdom prevails.
1. R. Kent Hughes, James: Faith That Works (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 137.
A world of unrighteousness—Although James wrote about both positive and negative uses of the tongue,
he often used terms and imagery that highlighted the dangers of our words. In James 3:6 we read that the
tongue is a world of unrighteousness, “a world of evil” (NIV), or “a world of wrong,” (TEV). God created a
good world, and humans are made in His image and likeness (v. 9). God did not create us or our tongues as
evil, but our speech has the potential to be used in harmful and destructive ways. The term world here likely
refers to human society rather than to the physical world, much as we talk today about the world of football
or the world of business.
SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One
LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.
A restless evil—In 3:8 the word restless is the same Greek word translated “unstable” in 1:8, where James
described the “indecisive” man. The tongue has the potential for good and bad. The misuse of the tongue
can lead to conflict (4:2) and swearing (5:12).
SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One
LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.
Praising and cursing—The ambivalent nature of human speech is vividly illustrated in 3:10 by our using
the tongue to praise and to curse. If we are wise, we will use our speech only for positive purposes, but our
speech is often negative, such as when we verbally abuse another person.
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ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND READING:
Analogies in the Book of James
By Steve Booth , academic dean and professor of Greek and New Testament at Canadian Southern Baptist
Seminary, Cochrane, Alberta, Canada.
ONE OF THE FOND MEMORIES I have from my days of serving in Budapest, Hungary, was the
discovery of espresso coffee. As I was sitting across from a good friend, the Hungarian pastor lifted a small
porcelain cup with his forefinger and thumb and demonstrably stated with a slight accent in English,
“Brudder Steve, dis is like de wheep to de horse!” His description of the caffeinated jolt one receives from
that shot of coffee was so accurate and picturesque that I still remember it clearly some 20 years later. This
is the power of a good analogy.
“Analogy” comes from a compound Greek word that means “between sayings or expressions.” The word
indicates a comparison that highlights similar features or attributes, things that might otherwise be
The analogy does not have the intended effect if the two things are totally alike or
totally unalike. Its impact is dependent on the connectedness between the two, typically with the lesser
understood object or concept being clarified by the better-known one.
Analogies are common throughout the Bible. Seemingly, Paul was particularly fond of them. For instance,
he said that compared to the effectiveness of offering a word to the church that everyone could understand,
speaking in tongues was like an unrecognizable tune emanating from a flute or harp played by someone who
does not make a distinction in the notes (1 Cor. 14:1-9). Jesus often taught using parables (like His story of
the four kinds of soil to illustrate various responses to the gospel) as well as shorter proverbial sayings of
picturesque speech (for example, “No one puts new wine in old wineskins.”). Types of literary comparisons
that paint pictures with words are numerous; some overlap and are often difficult to distinguish from each
other. The biblical writers used allegory, allusion, symbolism, metaphor, simile, personification, and more.
When we come to the Book of James we find many of these features distributed throughout its 108 verses.
Indeed James knew how to turn a phrase to maximize his ability to communicate. Even in the opening verse
his self-description as “a slave of God” (HCSB) could be interpreted as a metaphor. Some stock metaphors
through constant use become “faded or worn” and over time are treated as a new literalism (like
Such may be the case here. And when James addressed the first recipients of this epistle,
what did he mean by “the twelve tribes”? Certainly he does not mean the literal twelve tribes of Israel from
the Old Testament, since this entity had not existed since God‟s judgment in the eighth century BC. James
likely had a metaphorical meaning in mind.
The challenge for the biblical interpreter is first to understand and identify the literal or physical reference
and then to transfer some part of that meaning to the object of comparison. By nature, a metaphor places
more “demands on a reader . . . than a direct propositional statement.”3
The astute reader necessarily slows
down and ponders more carefully the author‟s message. When James stated the tongue is like a fire (3:6), he
was offering the reader an implied invitation to discover in what way this is true. Sometimes the writer
gives the meaning, but more often than not the reader must tease out the meaning. Exploring the logic and
aptness of the comparison stimulates the reader‟s mind. Making the connection is like solving a puzzle
because on one level the author has said one thing while meaning another.
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The vocabulary and style of writing can tell us some things about the sources an author had to draw upon the
setting with which he was familiar. For example, James knew Judaism well; he frequently made allusions to
and even directly quoted from the Old Testament. He also demonstrated a proficiency in the Greek
language, and some of his illustrations may have come from Hellenistic literature (for example, “the course
of life” in 3:6, HCSB).4
Similarly, though perhaps to a lesser extent, an author‟s choice of verbal expression can also tell us
something about his original audience. For example, someone using today‟s highly technical medical
language could be referring to a paper delivered at a physicians‟ conference rather than a private
conversation between a doctor and patient. Effective communication depends upon the hearer or reader
actually understanding the point the other person is making with an allusion or metaphor.
Can we learn anything about James‟s audience from the analogies he employed? Here are a few topics
about which we can assume James and his readers had some level of shared understanding.
Many of James‟s analogies related to farming; this is not surprising since the vast majority of the Greco-
Roman world in James‟s day was agriculturally based. He compared the brevity of life to the short time
grass and flowers survive in the scorching summer heat of the Middle East (1:10-11). He spoke of figs,
olives, and grapes—common Mediterranean crops—to make a point about human speech (3:12). Early and
late rains, harvest, workers who reap the fields, fruit, and first-fruits were all in James‟s vocabulary.
Additionally, he chose the farmer as a symbol of patience for Christians awaiting Christ‟s return (5:7-8).
James also showed some familiarity with the animal world when he described the small bit in the horse‟s
mouth that is able to control the entire horse (3:3).5
He extended his illustration by mentioning that humans
have tamed all kinds of wild animals and creatures (including reptiles and fish!), but they were still
incapable of “taming” their tongues (vv. 7-8). James may have also been making a comparison with a snake
when he described the human tongue as „full of deadly poison” (v. 8, HCSB). To these analogies in chapter
3, James added two more to describe the tongue: a spark that ignites a forest fire (v. 5), and a source that
abnormally produces both potable and non-potable water (vv. 11-12). The Greek word in 4:14 symbolizing
the uncertainty of life can be translated either “mist/vapour” (NIV/KJV) or a bit of “smoke” (HCSB), yet
another element from nature.
James‟s readers must have had some familiarity with the world of the sea since he spoke of waves (1:6),
ships and rudders (3:4), and sea creatures (v. 7). This does not necessarily mean James or his readers lived
on the Mediterranean coast, because those living around the Sea of Galilee or the Dead Sea, where shipping
was commonplace, would have found such general imagery equally familiar.6
In fact, the impact of
international trade during the Pax Romana extended far and wide even among land-locked peoples who may
have never ridden in a boat or swam in a sea.
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James grasped the socioeconomic conditions of his day, particularly the deep divide between the rich and the
poor. He employed a vivid example of personification when he pictured the unpaid wages of defrauded
laborers crying out against the rich (5:4). Equally shocking, the corrosion of gold and silver eats the flesh of
the rich like fire—a double metaphor (v. 3). Over confident businessmen who were willing to travel and
make investments without consulting God were also familiar to James and his readers (4:13-14).
Additionally, in the legal system the rich dragged the poor into court (2:6). James warned his readers not to
criticize one another because they put themselves in the role of the judge (4:11-12; see 2:4). Actually there
is only one Judge, and He is standing at the door (5:9)!
Finally, we see James using analogies from everyday life to make a point. He pictured the ruined wealth of
the rich as moth-eaten garments (v. 2). He likened one who hears the word but does not put it into practice
to one who looks into a mirror and quickly forgets what he sees (1:23-24). Desire, sin, and death are
personified as a three-generation family—desire conceives and gives birth to sin, who grows up and gives
birth herself to death (1:15). James even used a dead body as an illustration of faith without the “life” of
The power of an analogy is in proportion to who well the reader is able to make the connection the writer
implied. We can assume that James‟s first readers had no problem making the connections. As the epistle
circulated more widely, perhaps some of the details were lost on readers and needed explanation. This is
true for us as well. For example, did James‟s wording in 1:14 (“drawn away and enticed by his own evil
desires,” HCSB) reflect a hunting or fishing metaphor? Perhaps.
Most of the analogies in James—and throughout the Bible—are general enough for anyone to grasp, just
like the comparison of coffee to a whip. Although initially I might have envisioned the long whip
Hungarian cowboys used to round up cattle rather than the shorter rider‟s whip, the illustration still made the
point for me even though I did not grow up in Hungary or around horses.
1. “Analogy” in Richard N. Soulen and R. Kendall Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism, 4th
ed. (Louisville: Westminster John
Knox Press, 2011), 7.
2. G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), 152-53.
3. Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 94-95.
4. Some scholars who are not convinced a Jew of that period could have written such smooth Greek postulate that he may have
employed a scribe.
5. In 1:26 and in 3:2, James used the verbal form of the Greek word for “bit.” The more literal translation of “bridle” preserves
James‟s word picture better than the generic “controlling/control” of the HCSB.
6. Evidence for boating on the Dead Sea has come to light as the water levels have dropped and remarkably well-preserved
wooden anchors dating to the Roman Era have been discovered. Although the salty water eats away at metal, it actually preserves
wood. Also, Madaba Map depicts shipping on the Dead Sea.
SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Vol. 40,
No. 1; Fall 2013.
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Old Testament Backgrounds of the Book of JAMES
By James Carter , Director of Church/Minister Relations, Louisiana Baptist Convention,.
THAT WE SPEAK OF A JUDEO-CHRISTIAN ethic indicates continuity between the Judaism of the
Old Testament and the Christianity of the New Testament. Christianity grew out of the continuing
revelation of God to the people of God. God‟s complete and final revelation of Himself was in Jesus Christ.
The New Testament book of James shows the influence of Old Testament Judaism. Some students consider
James to be the most Jewish of the New Testament books. The authors of one standard New Testament
introduction observed: “The epistle has a strong Jewish flavor that betrays the Jewish background and
interests of its author.”1
A. T. Robertson observed that the author of the Book of James was thorough Jew
who was knowledgeable of the wisdom literature.2
Possibly written between AD 44 and 50, James may be the oldest book in the New Testament.3
James was a
disputed book and was late in being accepted as a New Testament book.4
Several distinctive doctrines of the
Christian faith are not found in the book of James. Harold S. Songer noted that “James does not mention the
necessity of the death of Christ for man‟s salvation; he does not speak of the Holy Spirit as the source of the
Christian‟s strength;. . . and he does not clearly affirm the incarnation.”5
Martin Luther characterized
James as non-apostolic, unorganized, and Jewish; he gave it the designation of “a right strawy epistle.”6
Written to Christians everywhere rather than to a particular congregation, James emphasized the practical
nature of the Christian faith. The Hebrew form of the name “James” is Jacob. Three men named James
appear in the New Testament: James the son of Zebedee, James (the Lesser) the son of Alphaeus, and James
(the Just) the half-brother of Jesus. James the brother of Jesus, the leader of the Jerusalem church, has
traditionally been considered the author to the New Testament book of James.7
How was the book of James conceived? What was the source? Some writers have concluded that the book
of James is a totally Jewish work with some minor Christian editing, primarily the two references to the
Lord Jesus Christ in 1:1 and 2:1.8
Peter Davids argued against this view from three standpoints: “(1) James
contains some individual ideas embedded in the work that are not Jewish, but Christian, (2) James has close
affinities with some New Testament literature, and (3) James probably alludes to the words of Jesus.”9
Another idea about the conception of the book of James is that originally it was a “Letter of Jacob,” with
characteristic references to the twelve tribes of Judaism. The letter allegedly was adapted for Christian use.
Arnold Meyer advanced that theory to deal with the reference to the twelve tribes of the Dispersion
mentioned in 1:1.10
A variation of that theory is advanced by some interpreters who find an underlying “Letter of Jacob” with
the additions of Christian sections to the book by an editor.11
Harold Songer in The Broadman Bible Commentary recognized that the material is often disjointed and that
similarities to Jewish, Greek, and other Christian literature are present in the book of James. But he
concluded that “James reflects the thoughtful utilization of a wide range of ethical materials in the context
of his Christian perspective.” He went on to observe: “James . . . felt no need to discuss the characteristic
and generally acknowledged Christian doctrines. He writes to Christians, assumes they are in basic
agreement theologically, and uses the ethical materials that he feels are needed without any apology.”12
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James is a Christian book written by a Christian author for a Christian purpose. Davids observed that the
focus of the demands found in the book of James is on the community. James was concerned with the
breakdown of unity, love, and charity within the church. The tests of faith as evidenced in Acts 15 were
breaking the church apart. The call in this most practical book in the New Testament is for unity and
charity. The Lord‟s intervention, not human intervention is sought.13
The material in the book of James may have been preached before it was written.14
Hunter thought that by a
little “rearrangement” of the material five little sermons were found in it.15
The literary form used in the book of James is known as paranesis (general ethical instruction and
exhortation). Paranesis was used extensively in the first century in both the Jewish and the Greco-Roman
cultures. A characteristic of paranetic literature is the placing together of a series of exhortations in a loose
organization without attempting to develop one theme or line of thought.
In paranetic literature, material was often used from many sources that the author thought were appropriate
for his purposes. The section in the book of James that denounces economic exploitation (5:1-6) sounds like
the Jewish prophets, and the concerns of Judaism show in the reference to the law in the condemnation of
malicious speck (4:11-12). This feature of paranesis accounts for the close affinity between James and the
Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament.16
The Old Testament background of the writer is seen in the similarities to both the Old Testament prophets
and Old Testament Wisdom Literature. A. T. Robertson wrote that the tone of James is “distinctly that of
the Old Testament.” He characterized James as one who “speaks like a prophet of old in the service of
As the book of James is read, evidences of the Old Testament influences on the book become apparent. A
number of distinctly Old Testament concerns appear in the book.
The idea of suffering or testing occurs early in the book of James (1:2). This idea is also prominent in the
Old Testament. Old Testament understanding of suffering moves from the concept that all suffering is the
result of sin to the understanding that the righteous, too, may suffer. Testing is found from the testing of
Abraham (Gen. 22) to the testing of the nation of Israel in the wilderness. Davids concluded that James fits
into this Old Testament tradition.18
The concern with poverty/piety found in the book of James also echoes the Old Testament. Davids
mentioned that while earlier in the Old Testament wealth was seen as an evidence of God‟s favor, by the
time of the prophets the writers saw that piety often led to poverty as ruthless people took advantage of
honest and upright people. God is presented as loving and caring for the poor. James has great concern for
the poor. The economic condition of the Jerusalem church likely had great influence on James‟ concern
with the relationship between poverty and piety.
The place of the law is also an Old Testament concern. The law is mentioned three times in the book of
James: 1:25, 2:8-112, and 4:11-12. In each of these passages, the validity of the law is not argued but is
assumed. James did not argue about the law, but worked from the law. James‟s concern with the law was
not with the ceremonial aspects of it, but with the moral imperatives of the law. While James was interested
in the law, he was no legalist.19
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Wisdom is another concern that James shared with the Old Testament. The subject of wisdom appears in
1:5-8 and 3:13-18. Wisdom in the Old Testament is closely tied on the one hand to practical action and on
the other to God. Wisdom relates a person to God by producing obedience to His commands.
In the book of James, wisdom is a gift of God to Christians. Wisdom results in a series of virtues that are
interestingly paralled to virtues found in the Old Testament.20
Consider also prayer as a common concern between the Old Testament and the book of James. For James,
the way to gain wisdom is through prayer. In James‟ concern with prayer, the promises of prayer apply to
the person who has a wholehearted commitment to God. Some of the references to prayer focus on the
relationship of the believer with God rather than on the material world.21
These five areas show the common concerns of James and the Old Testament can be seen. In these ways,
the Old Testament has influenced the book of James.
What are the contributions of James to New Testament Christianity if the book is strongly influenced by the
Harold Songer enumerated three distinct contributions of the book of James.22
The first is that James is the
purest type of paranetic literature found in the New Testament. A New Testament writer employed a
method of ethical exhortation that was being successfully used by others in the first century.
A second contribution of the book of James is its warning that we may emphasize justification by faith to the
extent that Christians lose their grip on the moral and ethical demands of the gospel. With his practical
approach, James defined Christian life in terms of the moral and ethical behavior of those who profess faith
in Jesus Christ as personal Savior.
The third contribution of the book of James is in the balance maintained between personal spiritual
development, responsible membership in the Christian community, and Christian action. Christian action
should be designed to be redemptive in the larger society of which the Christian is a part.
A. T. Robertson called the book of James “a little gem in conception and expression.” He indicated that it
reminds one of portions of the book of Proverbs, some of the Psalms, and portions of the Prophets, all Old
Testament books that show the Old Testament background to the book of James.23
James sought to interpret
Christianity more fully on its ethical and social side to the Jewish Christian of his time. Christians today can
find in this epistle what they need to make practice correspond with profession.