As we take up the task of outlining the letter of James, we notice the difficulty that confronts us. It appears at first reading that James is dealing with so many subjects that it lacks cohesion. To put it bluntly, it seems as if he is rambling. The words of Hendriksen in his Bible Survey are worth quoting.
Now, this type of discourse, superficially viewed, reminds one of a person who in conversation changes his subject constantly. We call him a rambler. If that is what James does, it would be just as impossible to outline his epistle as it would be to outline a dictionary. Closer study however, reveals that this is not at all the case. In the entire section 1:1-18 he rivets our attention upon one central thought: he is admonishing the sorely oppressed and afflicted readers of his epistle to exercise endurance in the midst of trials and temptations. If they lack this grace, they should, with confidence, ask God to supply it. Instead of losing all courage, they should reflect on their high estate. That the necessity of exercising endurance in the midst of trials and temptations is, indeed, uppermost in the mind of the author is evident also from the fact that in the paragraph beginning at verse 12 the blessedness and the reward of such endurance is indicated. Moreover, the fact that it—as well as every grace—is the gift of God, is again emphasized; see verse 17. All this is beautiful unity. James has not wandered away from his subject at all. Moreover, he ends his epistle as he begins it; namely, with an exhortation unto endurance. Cp. 1:3, 4, 12 with 5:11.
James is, as it were, preaching a sermon—and what he presents in his epistle bears so many resemblances to a well-organized sermon that some interpreters have regarded it to be just that—and before he dwells at length on certain “points”, he first states them. He is going to enlarge on the fact that genuine faith, which far excels mere intellectual belief, is demonstrated by deeds of kindness and impartiality, chapter 2; by words of restraint (the bridled tongue), and wisdom, chapter 3; and by thoughts or inner attitudes of purity and meekness, chapter 4. These three points are first mentioned or introduced in the paragraph 1:19-27, as already indicated. Then in chapters 2, 3, and 4 they are dwelt on at length.
1. The introduction. James identifies himself as the author, “a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). Also he states to whom he is writing, “to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1).
2. Encouragement given to endure in the midst of trials (James 1:2-18). The value of the trial is stated: it works patience (durability), and that in turn makes one reach the goal God has set, perfect and entire (James 1:2-4). This requires wisdom which one may receive through prayer. This prayer must not be of a double-minded man, but the prayer of faith (James 1:5-8). God is the One Who sends riches and poverty of which the real benefit is being right toward God (James 1:9-11). One who is tried and endures will receive the crown of life (James 1:12). The source of temptation is not God but one’s own lust which produces death (James 1:13-15). In contrast, every good gift comes from God, especially salvation which makes us the firstfruits of redemption (James 1:16-18).
3. James now specifically mentions the main subjects which he will treat in this letter (James 1:19-27). The first of them is the importance of deeds of kindness. Be doers of the word and not hearers only. It is important that we do not look into the glass of the law and forget what we see; rather we should look into the law and continue to practice it. Pure religion is to visit the fatherless and widows and keep oneself unspotted from the world (James 1:22-25, 27). The second theme is that we must use words of restraint and wisdom. Let every man be swift to hear and slow to speak, Religion is vain if a man cannot bridle his tongue (James 1:19, 26). The final theme is the importance of thoughts of purity and meekness. Lay aside all evil and receive with meekness the engrafted word (James 1:21).
4. Genuine faith is demonstrated by deeds of kindness and a working faith (James 2:1-26). We are not to show respect of persons when rich or poor come to our assembly. If we do that, we are judges of evil thoughts (James 2:1-4). We may not despise the poor, for God has chosen them. The royal law requires of us love for the neighbor (James 2:6-9). The law of God is one whole; if we break one commandment we are guilty of all. Hence, if we do not commit adultery but kill our neighbor, we are breaking the whole law. We are to speak and act as those who will be judged. If we judge without mercy, then the same will happen to us (James 2:10-13). Faith without works is dead. It profits nothing if a brother or sister has need and we say, “Go eat,” but we don’t fill that need. So with faith—if we say we have faith, but are not active in that faith, it is dead (James 2:14-18). Mere belief in God is not proof of faith. The devils have that kind of faith. Only a working faith is real. Abraham is an example. He offered up Isaac and was justified through that working faith (James 2:19-24). Rahab is another example (James 2:25-26).
5. Another proof of real faith is one’s ability to restrain his tongue and express wisdom (James 3:1-18). A warning is given that we should be careful not to try to be teachers when we are not (James 3:1). The tongue must be controlled, even as the bridle controls horses and the rudder controls the ships (James 3:2-4). The tongue is a small member of the body, but can enflame a world of iniquity (James 3:5, 6). Man has tamed many birds and animals, but no one can tame the tongue. The same tongue is used in blessing and cursing (James 3:7-10). We should be consistent in our use of the tongue. As a fountain gushes with either sweet or bitter water and fig trees do not produce olives, so our tongues should speak the truth in love (James 3:11, 12). As children of God who possess true faith, we are able to overcome evil speech by love and wisdom which are from above and are characterized by gentleness, mercy, being sown in peace (James 3:13-18).
6. The evidence of a living faith can be seen in pure and humble thoughts and attitudes (James 4:1-17). Strife in the church arises from lust, greed, and murder (James 4:1, 2). When one is in that spiritual condition his prayers will not be answered because such prayers are motivated by lust (James 4:3). Spiritual adultery brings one into friendship with the world and makes one an enemy of God, a result of lusting to envy (James 4:4, 5). The only cure for this is the grace of God which enables us to resist the devil and draws us near to God. The expression of such a change is repentance from sin and a sincere desire to do God’s will (James 4:6-10). If we do this, we will avoid evil speaking and harsh judgment (James 4:11, 12). We will realize how frail our life is and say, “If the Lord will” (James 4:13-16). If we neglect to do good, which we know we must do, we sin (James 4:17).
7. By faith we are encouraged to overcome all sin and endure unto the end (James 5:1-20). A warning is given to the rich that gold and silver cannot abide. If they take advantage of God’s people, God will call them to account and punish (James 5:1-6). The believers are encouraged to be patient for the coming of the Lord. Some examples are given. The first is that of the farmer who waits for harvest through sunshine and rain (5:7, 8). The prophets are cited as examples of endurance, persistence in faith even if abused (James 5:9, 10). Job is mentioned as an example of patience (James 5:11). Rather than swearing oaths, we had better pray personally and for each other, and, if need be, call the elders to pray and anoint the sick that they may be healed (James 5:12-16). Elijah is the final example of endurance (James 5:17, 18). True care for one another can save a soul from death and realize reconciliation by mutual forgiveness of sin (James 5:19, 20).
1. What biblical proof do we have that the author of this letter was James, the half-brother of our Lord?
2. What was the need for writing this letter to the dispersed Jewish Christians? Why does it deal almost exclusively with practical Christian life?
3. What proof is there in this letter that the readers were suffering tribulation. What was the occasion for this?
4. The spiritual problem that James deals with in this letter is the need for living faith, not historical faith. Explain the difference.
5. What is the difference between temptation and trials? (see James 1:2-8, 12-16).
6. How could we be guilty today of the sin or showing the favoritism mentioned in James 2:1-7?
7. How can a person be a hearer of the Word and not a doer (James 1:22)?
9. Why is the law called “royal” in James 2:8?
10. List ways in which we can sin with our tongues. Do you agree that if a person can control his tongue he is able to control his whole body (James 3:2)? Why is this so?
11. Notice with me that there are three references to using prayer wrongfully (James 1:7, 3:9, 4:3). Why would a person pray at all if he would pray wrongfully?
12. Is all strife in the church forbidden (James 4:1-6)? Is there good and necessary strife in the church at times?
13. Refer to the examples of “endurance” given in James 5 and illustrate from the events of their lives recorded in the Bible that this was true.
14. Explain the prayer and anointing of the elders mentioned in James 5:14-16.