I’ve mentioned before that one of the challenges when studying the book of James is to see how all the topics he mentions in chapter 1 fit together. We assume that there must be some order to what he’s writing and it’s not just a random list of subjects which he’s tossed together without much forethought.
But it’s not always easy to see the connection, because in this one chapter he begins with trials. Then he moves on to wisdom. Then he mentions poverty and riches. Then in verse 12, he’s back to trials. He then moves on to temptation which leads on to a statement about God’s good gifts towards us which includes the new birth. Then he mentions anger. Then it’s how we need to be doers of the word and not listeners only. And he finishes the chapter on a proper definition of true religion. He mentions all of these topics and it seems to be one after another, all tossed together, the way we might toss stuff into the suitcase when we’re packing to go on holiday. And it’s just one thing after another, all thrown in; as many as will fit.
So, is there a connection? Are all of these topics connected in some way? Did James have a plan when he started to write his book?
I’ve already suggested how trials and wisdom and poverty and riches go together. Because you see, we need wisdom, wisdom from God, in order to know how to respond to the trials we suffer so that good will come out of them. That’s the connection between our trials and wisdom.
And then we need wisdom, wisdom from God, in order to view our poverty or to view our wealth in the right way. So, that’s the connection between wisdom and poverty and riches.
So, it’s not just a random list of topics. There’s a plan. There’s a connection. There’s an order to how James is presenting his material. And in today’s verses he moves from poverty and wealth back to trials. And then he begins to tell us about temptation. And again, these topics are connected. There’s a verbal connection, first of all, because the word for trial and the word for temptation is, in fact, the same word in Greek. Depending on the context, it should either be translated as trial or as temptation.
But there’s more than a verbal connection, because, you see, every trial is a temptation and every temptation is a trial. Every trial is a temptation and every temptation is a trial. What do I mean? Well, whenever we face trials and troubles, we’re tempted, aren’t we? We’re tempted to give up believing in God’s goodness. We’re tempted to doubt God’s love and his care for us. Or we’re tempted to question his ability to help. Whenever we face trials and troubles, we’re tempted to throw up our hands in despair and to give up the faith entirely and say:
You know what? There’s nothing in this Christianity business.
Every trial is a temptation. And every temptation is a trial, because every time we’re enticed to sin, we’re being tested. So, will we resist the temptation to sin? And will we remain faithful to our Lord who loved us and gave up his life for us? Every temptation is a trial which tests the strength of our faith and of our faithfulness.
There’s the connection. James moves from trials to wisdom: we need wisdom to know how to respond to our trials in the right way. And we need wisdom to know how to regard poverty and riches in the right way. And the sorrow that comes from having too little money and the sorrow that comes from having too much money is itself a trial. And then James moves from our trials to talking about temptation, which is itself a trial, when our faith and our faithfulness to God is tested. So, let’s look at these verses today.
And let’s turn to verse 12, first of all. James writes:
Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
According to James the person who is blessed by God is the person who perseveres under trial. He’s thinking about the believer who goes through troubles and trials and sorrows and difficulties; and yet despite all that he or she goes through, this person continues to trust in the Lord and to walk in his ways. Other people may look at this person with sympathy. They will say:
Poor Jane. Poor Joe. Look what they have had to go through. I wouldn’t like to be in their shoes.
And we wouldn’t want to be in their shoes, because of all they’ve had to suffer. Nevertheless, the Lord looks upon Jane and he look upon Joe; and he, as it were, smiles on them. He smiles on them with his favour. And he smiles on them, because the Lord knows what lies in store for the believer who perseveres under trial and stands the test.
What does the Lord have in store for such a person? Look what James tells us in verse 12. He says that the one who perseveres under trial and stands the test will, in the end, receive the crown of life, or the crown that consists in life.
Now James and his original readers may have had in their mind a picture of a Roman athlete who, if he was successful in the Games, would win and wear a laurel wreath on his head. And I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of this kind of thing. So, this athlete won the sprint. This one won the javelin throwing. This one won the chariot racing This one won the boxing. And so on. And their prize was the laurel wreath, which they wore on their head like a crown.
And who would win the crown? Only those who trained hard and who pushed themselves to become faster, and fitter, and stronger, and better than their competitors. And no doubt such athletes had to put up with all kinds of hardships and they had to discipline themselves and test themselves, again and again and again. But they endured it all. They persevered through it all. And in the end, they won.
Through the trials we suffer, through the hardships we face as believers, and by persevering through them all, we’re trained to become faithful servants who, one day, will receive the crown that is life. And it’s not a crown that will wither, the way the Roman athlete’s laurel wreath would wither. No, the crown of life which the Lord gives his faithful and persevering servants will last for ever and ever.
Don’t you want that crown? Don’t you want to receive the crown that is everlasting life? Well, of course, we need to believe in the Lord Jesus. We’re justified — pardoned and accepted — through faith alone in Christ alone. But, of course, it’s not about believing once. You know, once, when we were young, making a profession of faith; and then carrying on our life as before, as if nothing happened. No, we have to continue to believe throughout our lives. We need to continue to trust in the Lord right to the very end of our lives. We need to persevere and keeping believing, even when we go through trials and troubles. And the one who stands the test, and continues to trust in the Saviour, will receive the crown that is life.
The Secret to Persevering
And what’s the secret to persevering? What’s the secret that will enable us to keep going? Well, it’s this: We need to keep our eye on the prize. We need to keep our eye on the prize and to remember that, if we endure, we’ll receive that crown of life.
The student will keep her head down, and will keep studying, even though it’s sunny outside and all her friends are out, enjoying the good weather. But she’ll keep her head down and persevere with her revision because she’s got her eye on the prize and she’s thinking about that place at that university where she really wants to go. Well, we’re to keep our eye on the prize. We want to have eternal life. We want to be with the Lord for ever. So then, I’ll keep going and I won’t give up. I’ll keep trusting in the Lord who has promised to give me eternal life.
James moves from talking about trials in verse 12 to talking about temptation in verses 13 to 15. And, as I’ve already said, there’s a connection, because every trial is a temptation: we’re tempted to give up the faith. And every temptation is a trial, because it’s a test of our faith and our faithfulness. So, there’s that connection. There’s also the verbal connection, because the Greek word for trial in verse 12 can also be translated temptation. And so, he moves easily from trials in verse 12 to temptations in verse 13.
Now, do you remember what Adam said to the Lord after he and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden? The Lord confronted him:
Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat? Have you, Adam?
And Adam replied:
The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it.
Do you see what he was saying? Yes, I ate the forbidden fruit. But Eve gave it to me. And you’re one, God, who put this woman in the garden with me. It’s your fault, God. You’re to blame.
That’s what we sometimes do, don’t we?
It’s God’s fault. He’s made me like this. He’s given me these desires. He’s put these things in my way so that I see them all; and I can’t help it if I want them. It’s God’s fault. He’s tempting me.
But James won’t accept that kind of excuse. No, he says.
When tempted, no one should say: ‘God is tempting me’.
We’re not to blame God or say he’s responsible for my sins. Why not? Look at what James says in verse 12:
God cannot be tempted to evil.
He’s not in the least bit interested in what’s evil; and he’s not in the least bit attracted to anything that is evil. He’s not tempted to evil. And because he’s not the least bit interested in evil, he does not tempt anyone, anyone to do what’s evil. It’s just not in God’s nature to tempt us. So, we can’t blame God, ever.
Who is to blame for our sins? We need to understand that this is not the whole of the story. James is not saying everything that can be said about temptation and sin in these verses. This is not a systematic and comprehensive treatment of sin. So, he doesn’t mention the Devil; and he doesn’t mention the world. And we have to watch out for them (don’t we?), because the Devil is always trying to lead us astray with his wicked schemes. And the unbelieving world is always calling believers to leave behind the narrow way that leads to life and to join everyone else who is on the broad road that leads to destruction. So, we have to watch out for the Devil and we have to watch out for the world. But James doesn’t mention them. He wants to focus our attention elsewhere. James wants us to see that, when we sin, we’re to blame. We can’t blame God; we can only blame ourselves.
Look at what he says in verse 14. He writes:
Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire….
There it is. We’re tempted because of our own evil desires. Remember what the Lord said about the human heart and all the wicked things that lurk inside it? He said in Mark 7:
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.
He was saying that the human heart is a house of horrors, full of sinful thoughts and inclinations and desires. And so, James writes:
Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.
Think of the angler, who lowers his hook into the water. And the little fish swims by and sees this bright, shiny thing, dangling in front of him. And the fish is enticed by it. He’s attracted by it. And so, he’s lured towards it, because it looks so good to him. And then he takes a bite. And the angler thinks, ‘Got you!’ The fish is hooked and it’s dragged away by the angler.
Well, we’re enticed by sin. We’re attracted to it. Because of our own sinful desires which lurk without our own sinful hearts, we’re ready to grab hold of sin because it seems too attractive to us.
Think of King David who looked out and saw Bathsheba. And the thought of being with her and spending the night with her seemed too inviting to him. He was enticed by that idea. Because of his own sinful desires, he longed to be with her. And sure enough, he gave in to the desire in his own heart for a night with Bathsheba.
Or think of Judas Iscariot who was offered those thirty pieces of silver for betraying the Lord. The bag of money was dangling in front of him. And because of his own sinful desire for money and for all the things money could buy, meant that, sure enough, he gave in to the temptation and he betrayed the Lord.
We’re enticed by sin. We’re attracted to it. We’re drawn to it, because of our own sinful desires. But what we don’t often realise until it’s too late, is that underneath the sin, there’s a hook. The fish sees this bright, shiny thing and he goes to swallow it. But there’s a hook underneath. And we’re attracted by sin. And we think to ourselves:
I must have that.
But we don’t realise, until it’s too late, that underneath there’s a hook. And we’re caught. We think we’re going to get something good whenever we sin. But instead, sin takes hold of us.
In verse 15, James changes the image. Instead of thinking about the angler, who is trying to hook a fish, he’s thinking of a woman who gives birth to a child. And the child becomes a monster who causes death and destruction everywhere. And so, he says that the desire which lurks in our hearts gives birth to sin. In other words, it leads to sin.
And before, we move on, just think about that for a moment. Where does sin begin? Where is it conceived? Well, it begins in our head and our heart, in our thinking. We start to think about something we want. And it goes around our head, again and again and again. We can’t stop thinking about it. And eventually, all that thinking, and imagining, and wanting leads to action. It leads to sin. It all starts in our head and in our heart and in our thoughts.
So desire, once we think about it often enough, gives birth to sin. And sin becomes a monster, because when it is fully formed in us, it only leads to disaster. Just think of all the lives that have been wrecked because of sin. And just think of all the families that have been wrecked because of sin. Think about your own family, and how much better it would be if no one ever sinned. And think about your own life, the person you are and the things you do. And imagine how much better you would be, how much better life would be, if you did not sin the way you do. Our sinful desires give birth to sin. And sin becomes monster, wrecking our own lives, and wrecking the lives of the people around us. And, in the even, if we don’t seek forgiveness from God, it leads ultimately to everlasting destruction.
James is saying to us:
Listen. This begins in us. You might want to blame God, but you can’t. It begins in us. It begins in our sinful hearts with our sinful thoughts and our sinful desires and our sinful inclinations. And all of those sinful thoughts and desires lead to sin. Don’t blame God.
In verse 16, James says to us:
Don’t be deceived.
Don’t be deceived about where sin starts. And don’t be deceived about God. Don’t blame God for your own sins, because God is the one who fills our lives with good things. Do you see that in verse 17:
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
During the week, I was in town to do some errands. And because it was lunchtime, I bought a sandwich and went and sat outside the City Hall. The sun was shining when I arrived and it was nice. But then, a couple of minutes later, a dark cloud rolled by and covered the sun. So, I thought I’d get up and move along, because it was now quite chilly. And as I stood up, the cloud rolled on and the sun came out again. And so it continued. All day long the sunlight is changing. And then, at the end of every day, the sun disappears. The stars begin to shine. But soon enough, the stars seem to disappear and the sun comes out again. The lights in the sky are always changing and the shadows the sun makes on the ground are always changing. Always changing. But God doesn’t change. He remains the same. And he continually, continually, fills our lives with good things to enjoy.
We sometimes blame him. We say he tempted us. We say he made us sin. We say he made us the way I am and it’s his fault I’m like this. But no, says James. We can’t blame God for our sins. We’re the sinners. We’re the ones who do wrong. But God is the one who gives us good things to enjoy and he fills our lives with good.
God’s best gift
And what is his best gift to us? That’s what verse 18 is about. God’s best gift to us is the new birth. James says:
He chose to give us birth….
He didn’t have to. He wasn’t compelled to do it. But he chose to do it because he is so good and kind and gracious to us.
He chose to give us birth….
And he’s talking about the new birth whenever a sinner is born from above by the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit comes into our lives and he enables us to repent of our sins and to believe in the Saviour so that we’re united with Christ and adopted into God’s family. Once we were born into our natural family. Now we’re born into God’s family. And whenever that happens, God is no longer the judge who is going to condemn us, but he’s become our loving, heavenly Father who cares for us and help us.
Then James says:
He chose to give us birth through the word of truth….
The Holy Spirit works through the reading and preaching of God’s word to enable sinners to repent and to believe. We hear the preaching of God’s word, and the Holy Spirit works silently and secretly in our hearts to give us the new birth so that we can repent and believe.
Then James says:
He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, so that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
In Old Testament times, the firstfruits of the harvest was regarded as holy to the Lord. It belonged to him. And the farmer would bring it up to the temple and dedicate it to the Lord. Well, the Holy Spirit enables sinners to believe. And whoever believes is holy to the Lord. We now belong to him. And because we belong to the Lord who is holy, then we must fight with all our might against every sinful desire and every sinful inclination that remains lurking in our hearts. Because we belong to the Lord who is holy, we will do everything we can to resist temptation. Because we belong to the Lord who is holy, we will therefore seek to do his will and we will trust in him and follow him right throughout out life.
Since the reason we sin is because of our own sinful desires, lurking in our hearts, then we ought to be the most humble of people, because we know that our hearts are sinful and we sin so easily. But then, because God has filled our lives with good things, and — if you’re a believer — since he has also given you the new birth, then we ought to be the most thankful of people, because of his kindness to us. And since we now belong to him, we ought to strive with all our might to fight against the sin inside of us and we ought to give ourselves over to doing his will. And though we may have had to go through many trials; and though we may have had to fight many times against temptation — nevertheless when our life is finally over, it will all be worthwhile, because the Lord will say to us, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’; and he will place on our heads the crown that is life.