Criswell Theological Review 1.1 (1986) 113-135.
Copyright © 1986 by The
JAMES, THE WISDOM OF JESUS
JOHN A. BURNS
The Scope and Purpose
When the Epistle of James is studied, it is regarded as a book of
wisdom. But what kind of wisdom is it? With what biblical parallels
can it be connected? Given that it is practical, with what matters does it
register concern? Does it speak directly to all mankind or is it specifi-
cally directed to the believer? Are the issues that presented themselves
to the 1st century church pertinent for this century? It is the intention of
this article to speak to the foregoing questions.
It has always been difficult to trace the outline as found in this
epistle. While it is not the purpose of this article to trace the argument
of James as it develops, one cannot ignore the importance of develop-
ing arguments within the epistle. The wise man desires bases on which
he can affirm his spiritual vitality. The book of James presents the tests
of faith. As the believer encounters opportunities to walk in wisdom,
and employs the provisions given by the Lord, genuine growing faith
will be evident. Faith always is appropriated in concrete circumstances
applied to specific attitudes and acts.
The Wisdom Tradition in the Ancient World
Collections of wise sayings were found in every part of the OT
and NT biblical worlds.1 In its subject matter, the sayings of the wise
embraced one's practical, everyday conduct and gave advice about
proper behavior in the royal courts. Its message was ostensibly simple:
1 R. B. Y. Scott, The Way of Wisdom in the Old Testament (
114 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
whoever takes this counsel is "wise," whoever ignores wisdom's warn-
ing is a "fool." The OT expects the father of the family to teach his
children these words, e.g., "my son" Prov 1:8-9:18; 22:17-24:22.
Most of the proverbs of ancient literatures, including the OT, are
short statements which pertain to the varied facets of life. These are
sayings which describe the successful life--which can be learned
through the pursuit of wisdom.
Wisdom in the OT
The object of OT wisdom is twofold:
1. To instruct the student to explore life's meaning through reflec-
tion, inquiry, and debate.
2. To guide the learner in living, through the rules of God's moral
The Wisdom literature of the OT is usually a reference to the
books of Ecclesiastes, Job, certain Psalms (19; 27; 104; 107; 147; 148),
and especially the book of Proverbs. Also, there are books of Hebrew
literature outside the OT canon which are cast in this literary mold.
Wisdom in the NT
Of the books of the NT, James is often identified as an example of
wisdom literature.2 There is no question that this epistle, as other
portions of the NT (e.g., 1 Cor 1-4 and the Sermon on the Mount), are
of the essence of divine wisdom. It is another matter to identify
the epistle of James as wisdom literature, since this is a literary
II. The Wisdom Tradition and James
There are a number of differences between the characteristics of
Wisdom literature and James that disqualify it as Wisdom literature,
though, of course, this epistle presents the wisdom of God. The
following observations should be considered:
1. James does not exhibit the paternal tone (e.g., "my son") found
often in Wisdom literature. In fact, there is no emphasis on any age
2. There is an absence of rhetorical questions in James' argument
and in his introduction (cf. Prov 1:22).
3. There is a congratulatory and often exclamatory form of speech
employed in Wisdom literature, as in Prov 3:13 and 28:19. This form is
2 Donald W. Burdick, "James" in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, (12 vols;
Burns: JAMES, THE WISDOM OF JESUS 115
also found in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, but it is a
form never found in James.
4. The four key words of Prov 1:6, showing the various literary
forms employed in Proverbs, are: proverbs (Hebrew masal), parables
(melisa), wise words and riddles, verbal puzzles (hida).
The most important of these forms is the masal, “likeness, com-
parison.” It is often expressed in verse couplets. Other masal expres-
sions emphasize contrast, antithesis3 (Prov 10:1; 25:1; 26:11). James
does not employ such literary devises as these models or paradigms.
5. The message of James is not formed around the figures of the
wise and the simple, a frequent device to teach truth in the wisdom
literature (Prov 10:1).
Also, varieties of poetic parallelism, including numerical paral-
lelism, commonly used in stating the sentiments of OT wisdom, do not
appear in James.
What does the absence in James of structures, forms and vocabu-
lary common to OT wisdom literature indicate? It means that James is
not fashioned after, nor dependent on, an OT model.4 There is no
adequate reason why the NT should include literature cast in the same
form as Proverbs, Job or Ecclesiastes. The epistle of James gains no
advantage in imitating the wisdom formulas. If the author wished to
cast his epistle after the wisdom model, he would have made use of its
peculiar literary features.
Literary Parallels in James
The Old Testament. Of course James, like the rest of the NT,
breathes the wisdom of God, but its literary characteristics are indica-
tive of NT forms of expression, even though the writer of this epistle
has been steeped in OT and Incarnational thought.
James was familiar with the Hebrew OT as well as the LXX. His
vocabulary of 570 words includes 73 of which are not used in the rest of
the NT--and 46 of that number are found in the LXX. Certain
idiomatic Hebraisms are frequent.5 It should be noted that OT per-
sonages are employed as illustrations.
The book of James cannot be explained as a reapplication of the
OT message. The Epistle's author reflects the teaching of Jesus Christ
too broadly to allow that conclusion.
3 Samuel P. Tregelles, Gesenius' Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testa-
ment Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949) 517.
4 James Hardy Ropes, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of St.
James (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1971) 18-19.
5 James Adamson, The Epistle of James (NIC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976) 18.
116 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
The New Testament. It is clear that James preserves directly the
truth (some call it tradition, possibly a neutral term) of Jesus. This is the
immediate background of the wisdom of James, rather than the OT.
But this Epistle does not rest on the four Gospels, nor on the full range
of the Synoptics--it reflects the specific teaching of Jesus in the Sermon
on the Mount and a few other loci.6
It seems better, then, to refer to James as NT wisdom, or the
wisdom of Jesus. It is well to remember that Jesus heightened the
ethical demands (Matt 5-7; Luke 6) for his disciples far above the
nature and scope of application of the OT. Like Jesus, James expects
his teaching to produce an altered, new life. In fact, James' wisdom
specifies how the believer lives to please God. In the light of the
Father's constant presence and in view of His coming at the eschaton
(the consummation, the Judge of the ages), the believer must not
merely think but must live in a way which honors God.
III. Wisdom in James' Epistle
The effective means by which a believer becomes practically wise
is prayer (1:5). If God is seen as the source of all provision, then the
superintendence by His will offsets the human desire to prosper apart
from God's wise provision.
The Way of Wisdom
(Matt 18:18-20; 21:22 // Mark 11:24; John 14:13-14; 15:7 and 16:23).
These are promises based on the believer's relationship to God. Because
of this personal dimension, the prayer of faith is effective in securing
both daily wisdom (1:5) and in the cure of the repentant, ailing sinner
(5:15). Such an extreme measure in that believer's life calls forth the
demonstration of wisdom in a changed life, a living statement of faith
in the wisdom of God.
The well-debated passage 2:18-26, especially v 20, is written to the
brethren (2:15) with the idea of the fulfilled Christian life in mind. The
vain man is one in whom there is no recognizable fulfillment of the
divine purpose (1:4; 3:2). God's intention includes both the forensic
righteousness conferred on the believer by God and the practical
demonstration of applied righteousness by the wise believer.7 Paul,
too, stresses both elements: being a child and living like a child of God.
6 Peter W. Davids, "James and Jesus" in Gospel Perspectives, Vol. 5 (
JSOT Press, 1984) 66-67.
7 Leslie Mitton, The Epistle of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966) 103.
Burns: JAMES, THE WISDOM OF JESUS 117
Practical righteousness is the wise life; it is characterized by freedom
from one's limitations and is a life dependent on God, who is the author
of all good (1:17).
The subjects which concern the wise believer are: the source of
wisdom, regeneration, the nature and use of God's Word, the control of
one's response to others (especially favoritism), the response of
righteous faith, the error of grasping at life apart from the will of God,
and the confession of sin.
James presents the two ways of life available to the believer: there
are two ways to deal with trials and temptations, to respond to God's
Word, to relate to wealth, to approach faith, and to use the tongue.
There is a choice between "wisdoms," and between the two ways to
cope with one's desires. Also, there are alternatives to the tendency to
judge, to be arrogant, and to be self-centered. Finally, James reminds
us of the alternatives to impatience, deception, and to the bondages of
These two ways of life are not simply presentations of an inferior
and a superior lifestyle. The wisdom of the individual materializes:
should he or she choose the prayer path? Spiritual gain or loss will
result. However, what James presents is not an option for the believer--
it is obligatory. The necessity of a Christian lifestyle is indicated by the
frequency of James' injunctions; there are fifty-four imperatives in one
hundred eight verses. James reproves, rebukes and exhorts through the
use of the prohibitive subjunctive.8
The commands address the thoughts, emotions and the activity of
the will. Some of these commands emphasize one's attitude, while
others specify individual acts. At times, the nature of the word-
meaning demands a complex idea of the attitude with acts growing
therefrom. Of course, in dealing with the Christian personality, the
total personality of body, soul and spirit, are included in any response
to God's Word. At tUnes there are distinct emphases which involve one
aspect of the personality more than the others.
The Attitude of the Wise Christian
The word (1:2) for testing is peirasmo<j;9 some have taken this
word to mean only or principally "persecution." However, that posi-
tion ignores an entire range of human experiences which require
wisdom. Secondly, it would require an unnecessarily late date for
James, one which would allow for later developments of persecution
8 H. E. Dana and J. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament
(Toronto: Macmillan, 1955) 171.
9 H. Seesemann, "[peira" TDNT 6 (1968) 23-26.
118 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
beyond the local (less intensive) level. Thirdly, this word is used of
common circumstances of misfortune (peirasmo<j) in Plutarch's work.10
The term then covers a range of experiences from internal, moral
pressure to exterior circumstances and, whenever indicated context-
ually, to persecution. This first of James' tests of faith concerns faith
under pressure (chap 1).
What should be the wise believer's attitude in response to dis-
appointments, sorrows, hardships, persecutions, and temptations?
James (1:2) says the response should be joy--not just joy at the end of
the experience but throughout it all (indicated by the present participle
"knowing"). The verb describing the expressed response is an aorist
tense, indicating that on each occasion of danger to the soul the trial
should be counted joy. Counting it joy is prescribed, not suggested.11
"Counting" is a bookkeeping term; it emphasizes what one must
conclude, perhaps regardless of what one observes. These conscious
acts are possible--because there is happiness in experiencing whatever
contributes to the Christian's spiritual growth. This understanding of
happiness is traceable to Jesus' Beatitudes where the blessed man (cf.
Ps 1) rejoices under unusual circumstances. The Christian attitude
expresses itself in decisive, conscious acts, rejoicing in the opportunity
they provide for the Lord to work His blessing in their growth: "that
they might be complete" (i!na h#te te<leioi).
Wisdom and Testing
In the midst of this opportunity for growth, there are two areas of
danger. The first area of danger (1:2) is that the testing will suddenly
and frequently (o!tan) overtake us. The word "fall" (peripe<shte) in
classical Greek designates an unplanned and undesirable event;12 in 2
Macc 10:4, it describes
The only other NT use of the word "fall" describes the ambush of the
man who "fell" among thieves on the Jerusalem-Jericho road (Luke
10:30). The strength of a testing often is that we never know when it
The predicament caused by testing points out that wisdom will be
necessary. The verb "to ask" occurs twice in 1:5-6 (both present
imperatives); seeking wisdom from the giving-God is the normal
The second danger (1:4) is that the believer will seek God's
wisdom, but will stop seeking and applying God's wisdom before it has
10 LSJ 1221.
11 Joseph B. Mayor, The Epistle of St. James (Grand Rapids:Zondervan, 1954) 33.
12 LSJ 1249.
Burns: JAMES, THE WISDOM OF JESUS 119
fully accomplished its purposes, a perfect work (e@rgon te<leion). The
command is to "keep on letting patience achieve" God's intention
(e]xe<tw). Wisdom is given to teach us proper attitudes. It is possible that
we will not allow the full extent of God's purposes. This failure of faith
may cause us to (1) lie our way out of further distresses, (2) simply
give up under pressure, and (3) to yield to self-pity, bitterness and
discontent, rather than to patience.
It is God's wisdom to insist on faith, suggested by the present tense
of the imperative: "let him continue to ask in faith" (1:6). It refers to a
simple act of coming to Jesus with a specific need in mind, knowing
that a partnership has been formed through confidence in Him. When
one is characterized by wavering (1:6), there is no such confidence that
the prayer will be heeded, that one cannot decide whether to trust God
or not. A sea rages within him but without resolution; there is only
unsettled behavior. Continual hesitation does not promote fellowship
with God. This is contrary to wisdom.
Wisdom as Skill
There is necessary activity and persistence in the exercise of
wisdom. In Matt 26:39 and Luke 22:42, Jesus prays unwaveringly for
wisdom, "not my will. . . ." Note Peter's hesitation and its consequences
(Matt 14:25-31). The wise are only so when they act wisely. James
instructs us to learn attitudes as a part of wisdom.
The word "wisdom" is used only twice in James (1:5 and 3:13-18),
but the concept is developed throughout the book. Wisdom in the
secular sense was used to designate one's skill in an art or handicraft; it
had reference to the most exact sciences. It was also employed in a
religious sense of the Divine essence of pure and immutable being. In
that application, wisdom indicated the most envied and elevated
existence. The idea of wisdom occurs extensively in the LXX. The
verb, noun and adjective complex occurs over 300 times, most often in
the wisdom books, but quite frequently in the historical books.13 There
it specifies technical skill and knowledge as, for example, in describing
the ability of the Tabernacle's craftsmen, such as Oholiab and Bezalel.
The prominent ideas specified are those of experience in life, with its
problems, and of success in living. Emphasis is heavily on the side of
activity rather than thought. Wisdom is revealed by practice and in
Though wisdom describes innate skill, clever conduct, and a
knowledge of culture, the OT speaks often of the wisdom possessed by
13 Edwin Hatch and Henry A. Redpath, A Concordance to the Septuagint (3 vols;
Rapids: Baker, 1983) 2. 1278-81.
120 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
God and the wise response expected in His creatures as they honor His
Wisdom and Obedience
In the NT, the wisdom in which Jesus grew continually was also
obedience to the revealed Word of God (Luke 2:40).14 His under-
standing and use of God's wise revelation caused his enemies to marvel
(Mark 6:2). Stephen manifests God's wisdom in his witness. Paul
expounds the theology of wisdom, especially as it relates to Christian
growth. The wisdom of the Lamb in the Revelation of John specifies
his ability to interpret the mysteries of the last times.
James' epistle emphasizes wisdom in living out the life of Christ in
ordinary human circumstances. It is the wisdom that comes from God;
it is opposed to the wisdom of this world; it does not serve those who
champion the other, immoral "wisdom."
The wisdom of which James speaks does not derive from human
experience; it is not selfish. It signifies a spiritual understanding of
God's will for man's life and a welcome compliance in the whole of
What effect does wisdom have on one's attitudes and ensuing
actions? James warns against faulty judgments of boasting and self-
deception. There are six imperatives in Jas 1:9-22, all but one of them
in the present tense; the exception is de<casqe in 1:21. This pas-
sage shows examples of how to cope with temptations to double-
In 1:9-11, the example of failure to trust God (double-mindedness)
concerns material wealth and its accompanying prestige.15 James,
throughout this epistle, as here, presents the tests of faith, the evidences
by which we can be assured that our faith is actively single-minded, the
opposite of diakrino<menoj.
In 1:9, the second of four uses of the conjunction de< appears; each one
indicates a new development in the argument in this section of the
book (1:5, 9, 19 and 22).
Wisdom and Wealth
Rather than telling fellow Christians that it is permissible to
assume a low profile, though they are socially insignificant, he com-
mands each one to "glory" or "boast" (a word used most often in Paul's
epistles in a pejorative sense). God is to be glorified, of course, not
14 U. Wilckens, "Swfi<a" TDNT 7 (1971) 496-528.
15 Bo Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter and Jude (AB; Garden City: Doubleday,
Burns: JAMES, THE WISDOM OF JESUS 121
because of one's poverty in contrast to the affluence and influence of
others, but because God's plan for such ones is the equality to be found
in Christ. His acceptance in the Son is intended to sustain him amid
testing. Without this support, he may be tempted to seek a solution in
opting for a security similar to the influential man who depends on
wealth and influence to extricate him from potential troubles. Lest the
"rich" man seek to settle his problems apart from the Lord's wisdom,
James (1:10) reminds him to exult in the position he shares with his less
able brother. Both rich and poor have access and are equally dependent
on the provision of God. Matt 5:12 has a similar command to the
spiritually alert to exult, knowing that the wages for life's experience
are not payable on earth. In J
God, either through practiced intrigue or despondency which may
even lead him to think God has forsaken him (1:13). The physical
dimensions of life are transitory--this realization is a mark of wisdom
(1:11; see also 5:1-6). The error (1:16) against which James warns
seems best related to the foregoing section where a careless believer.
allows faithlessness to grow to fruition. Vv 13-15 contain several
negative notes, while those of vv 17-1.8 are positive. The command is
properly rendered "Stop being deceived" (1:16).16 Deception is a token
of the unused provision of wisdom.
Wisdom and Rank
The wise instructor commands (1:19) the demonstration of God's
mind in the believer's conduct. The gifts of God and the birth by God
are sufficient to produce a life reflecting a relationship with God. The
wise Christian has a distinctive purpose (note the parallel constructions
of ei]j to> to with the infinitive) in living.17 The last construction with ei]j is
changed from an infinitive to a noun (o]rgh<) to introduce emphatically
the subject of the next section (1:20-27) with its warning against wrath
in speech and conduct (1:26). Reception of the Word of God results in
the traits of a Rabbi's good pupil as one who is" . . . quick to hear, slow
to forget. . . ."18 However, James upgrades the word "forget" to
"speak," which in this context is the hesitation to speak rashly or in
anger. He also adds a warning against acts of wrath which are the result
of self-assertion as over against God's will.
16 Peter W. Davids, Commentary on
17 Arthur Carr, The General Epistle of James (CGT;
18 APOT 707.
122 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Wisdom and Growth
The counsel of God's wisdom aims at implanting His word into toe
Christian's character (e@mfuton) in 1:21.19 The "rooted word"--that is its
nature--is welcomed (de<casqe) into a life, like elements of nutrition
being continually absorbed into a plant to make it grow.
The element which makes this growth-pattern possible is "meek-
ness" (1:21). Jesus calls himself "meek" in Matt 11:29; He places
"meekness" in the forefront of the qualities of the "blest" (Matt 5:4, 5).
It is willingness to acknowledge the will of God in one's life, the
opposite of the exercise of anger (3:13, 17), and is an expression of
righteousness (1:20).20 The potency of the "rooting-word" results in the
character of Christ transforming (sw<zw) the entire life of the Christian
(yu<xh). The intended goal for the believer is not learning; it is deeds
Just as spiritually unproductive as double-mindedness is the
attempt to combine faithfulness to Christ, in other connections, with
unfaithfulness in relations with other Christians. The second test of
faith relates to the deceptively gentle pressure of favoritism (chap 2).
Believers are admonished to stop trying (e@xete) to combine faith in
Christ with the discrimination of persons (2:1). This snobishness ignores
injustice for fear of the powerful (2:6). Such conduct respects the
person of man, but disrespects the person of God. These perpetrators
are judges with evil thoughts (2:4).
In one of three OT quotations in James (2:8-11), there is evidence
of Semitic grammatical influence: the future is used as a categorical
imperative, "love your neighbor." 21 The form emphasizes the exercise
of the will; it is a command. The emphasis on a controlled use of the
will is seen in these imperative verbs of "saying" and "doing" (2:12). A
third test focuses on personal commitment (2:14-26). The believer
"enwisened," recognizes the unity of the Law which reflects the unity
of the Law-giver's will. Believers are to be influenced by God's wisdom
so that they won't express their impatience with those in need (2:16).
The language here was used to let one know he was being dismissed.
The next word in the imperative (u[pa<gw)was used to say goodbye to
beggars. It signaled that contact with the needy-one was over; the
subject was closed. Wisdom should control the emotions. Wishing the
19 Sophie Laws, The Epistle of James (HNTC;
20 BAGD 704.
21 W. E. Oesterley, "The General Epistle of James" The Expositor's Greek New
Testament (5 vols;
Burns: JAMES, THE WISDOM OF JESUS 123
one who needs warm clothing and sufficient food to have them
indicates only a hearer not a doer of the Word. The word "comforted"
(xorta<zesqe) means, "to feed someone until they are full" (2:16).22 It is
no more excusable to ignore God's revealed will in respect to treatment
of people's needs ("loving one's neighbor") than it is to reject God's
admonitions not to murder and to avoid adultery (2:11).
The emphasis of the verb "to have" (2:18) shows what potentially
belongs to one. The chiastic structure of these verses (2:18-26) means
to tie faith to works inseparably. Without faith, there would be no
reason to do any works. Also, without faith, there would be no relation
to the dynamic power necessary to perform the works. It is also
necessary to recall the sort of works expected in this passage: "saying"
and "doing" what the principle of love demands. The point is not just
to do what man will see, but what God expects the result of their faith
to be also (2:20). Personal commitment to God moves beyond empty
claims (2:18) either to man or to God. The vain man is one who does
not employ wisdom (2:20). It is interesting that Abraham's hospitality
(Gen 18) is passed over as an illustration of faith in favor of his offering
of Isaac. He was justified previously, believing God would give a son.
The point is, Abraham's relationship to God is of greatest import, even
above acts of mercy. Isaac's "offering" is not an act of Abraham's
mercy, but is an act of faith, completed faith, not like that of the
The Tests of Faith
In chaps 1 and 2, three tests have been presented whereby the
believer can determine whether he or she is walking in wisdom. These
are tests concerning faith. Only faith leads us to walk wisely.
1. When people are under pressure (chap 1), the wise walk of the
faithful brings them to trust God's perspective on life. They must trust
God to provide for them. Jesus instructed men (Matt 6:24-34) that God
was dependable for today and tomorrow; the pursuit of God and His
righteousness should be our preoccupation (Matt 6:33) as doers of the
2. There are pressures of another kind--friendly pressures. There
is no place in the Christian assembly for the veneration of personalities,
nor for the denegration of those we judge to be of lesser importance
(2:1-13). Favoritism not only ignores the nature of the Body of Christ,
but leads one to worship persons instead of the Person of God. The
error is an attempt to combine one's faith in a general sense with an
22 G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (
& T. Clark, 1937) 482.
124 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
exception to what Christ taught. If the church service is to honor
Christ, what difference does it make who occupies “places of honor”
(2:3)? Six times in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus makes reference to Lev
19:18, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (see also Rom 13:19;
3. In the last part of chap 2 (vv 14-26), there is the wise admoni-
tion to let faith result in faithful acts. This section is directly related to
the previous one: it is the poor who benefit from the acts "out of" faith.
Jesus taught (John 13:14-15) the disciples such practical dimensions of
love (John 15:12, 17).
The wisdom of faith in 3:1-5:20 demonstrates the possibilities of
the Christian life. Here there are six tests of wisdom's self-control.
One's faith may be tested for its vitality at three points. Do I exercise
self-control or does my orientation lie in worldly-wisdom and its
misuse of the tongue (3:1-18)? What is my reaction to the lure of the
world and its attraction (4:1-5:12)? and, Do I distinguish my faith
through its acts of prayer and restoration (5:13-20)? In the light of the
return of the Lord, the Judge, the believer must walk in wisdom (5:7f).
Chap 3 opens with a present imperative (3:1), "Don't keep on
attempting to become teachers." The teaching office, viewed as a
counterpart to being a Rabbi, was strongly sought.23 Any social contact
one might have with a Rabbi was desirable: whether to speak with him,
have him as a house-guest, to marry his daughter--even to carry his
burdens, fetch him water, or saddle his donkey. There was acceptance,
authority and a highly desirable lifestyle in the role of the Christian
From God's perspective, the teacher's role is important because of
the vast influence of his words. The teacher is a minister of wisdom; his
words can lead to life changes, therefore, the censure or approval will
be keener (3:1). The word "judgment" signifies both the possibility
of either acquittal or condemnation. James links himself with other
teachers by using the first person plural. The future indicative empha-
sizes an inescapable time of evaluation.
Jesus speaks of teachers who are desensitized about their respon-
sibility: they only concern themselves with personal honors, the
ignore righteousness in favor of oppression, feigned spirituality, blind
guidance, and pretense (Matt 23).
Wisdom and Ministry
The wise use of the tongue is illustrated in six ways in chap 3,
each one illustrates the need of control; the list is punctuated by
23 APOT 707.
Burns: JAMES, THE WISDOM OF JESUS 125
statements and questions which heighten the need for the exercise of
wisdom. True and false wisdom are contrasted as to origin, character,
and outcome. A man's words are an extension of himself; they reflect
his nature (cf. 3:10). Control over the tongue signifies the whole person
is under control (te<leioj) (3:2). In chaps 3 and 4, the thought introduced
in 1:5-8 is further developed.
The aorist imperative deica<tw (3:13) calls upon the wise to "demon-
strate" his wisdom. Even a wise one must make an effort to reveal
God's provided sagacity. Perhaps there were some there who imagined
that teaching yields maturity automatically and who did not realize
that they were ignorant of the temptations of the office (2:9). The
evidence of maturity is only detected when the wise man acts wisely
and in meekness. The emphasis is, once again, on deeds versus words.
In 3:13 there occurs a hapax legomenon. The word ]Episth<mwn
("endued with knowledge") is employed in classical Greek of a skilled
workman, as a scientific person, as opposed to someone who is without
special "knowledge or training.24 It is employed to describe judges
1:13) and the nation
Jesus said every insignificant word would be judged (Matt 12:36).
Words cannot be used for the benefit of the individual, they must be
effectual for good. The frequency with which the teacher exercises his
frequently is envisioned in the word polla>: "all sorts of times" and
frequently (3:2). Thus, the need is to be careful; because the unruly
teacher can unwisely engage in destructive conduct, can be duplicious,
and be selfishly ambitious (3:5-14).
The wisdom which dominates that kind of conduct comes from a
source other than God (cf. 1:5, 17). The three words describing this
alternate wisdom present a descending level of characteristics (3:15).
Jesus said the results produced by the conduct of a professed wise
person indicate the source and nature of that wisdom (3:17; Matt
11:19). He also related that the proper use of the teacher's gift results in
blessing (3:9; Matt 5:19). James warns would-be teachers to stop using
the teaching function as a permit for arrogant boasting and even for
lying, especially in the sense that such wisdom is claimed to be derived
from God (3:14), when it simply cannot be.
Wisdom and the World
There is another way to determine the reality of one's faith. How
does the believing wise one deal with the magnetism of the godless
system of life known as the world (4:1-5:12)?
24 LSJ 573.
126 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
The first command to wise living is at 4:7, but the background
begins at v 1. Possibly our Lord's words in Matt 7:7-12 provided the
basis for this divine commentary on the wise and the unwise ways of
dealing with ambition (4:1-6).
In vv 5 and 6, James reminds the readers that there is a will to be
served other than their own. To reject Jesus' Lordship is to express
unfaithfulness to our God. Jesus spoke of an adulterous generation
which sought only to please itself, even when confronted by God's
revelation (Matt 12:38-39). Duplicity of heart, seen in adultery (4:4), is
really not divided affections, but a reassignment of total affections,
according to Jesus (Matt 6:24-34). In the Matthean reference, as in
James chap 4, the issue that reveals spiritual infidelity is one's grasping
attitude toward material things.
The remedy for this display of worldly wisdom is submission and
resistance (4:7). God has every right to our love. The Word of God
means all that it says (Deut 32:47—note keno>j answering to Deuter-
onomy's keno>j) when it asserts God's jealousy (4:5).
Because of God's just claims for our affection (ou#n), James issues a
series of commands in 4:7-10, all ten are aorist imperatives, emphasiz-
ing the need for acts of the will.
1. "Submit" (u[pota<ssomai) 4:7. The aorist imperative denotes an
urgent entreaty or command. The passive aorist has the significance of
the middle voice.25 This structure of the word suggests voluntary
alignment under God's authority. James expects total commitment,
expressed by subordination and resistance initially, then subsequently,
in obedience to the other imperatives. In Luke 2:51, this verb "submit"
describes the voluntary subordination of Jesus to his parents. It also
indicates the same deference of the Christian wife to her husband (Eph
5:21ff.). NT usage provides a family structure for one dimension of
usage of this term. Perhaps the basis of this command in 4:7 is founded
on the practice of one's relation to God's family. Elsewhere in the NT
u[pota<ssw is employed in the sense of involuntary compulsion (e.g.,
2. "Resist" (a]nti<sthte). This aorist imperative is best taken as
ingressive. It is often translated as an urgent entreaty, "Take your stand
against. . . ." When an imperative is followed by a future verb form, as
here, it forms the equivalent of a semitic conditional sentence.26 This
modifies the construction and is best translated, "When you take your
25 Adamson, James 174.
26 Mayor, James 146.
Burns: JAMES, THE WISDOM OF JESUS 127
stand against the Devil, he will run from you." Spiritual advantage in
combat with the Devil is not automatic, the believer must take a
position; this is a positive action, a step of volition beyond non-
submission to the tempter (1:13-15).
In His wisdom, God provides a way beyond escape--resistance
against the adversary. This is accomplished by submission to the will
and life of God. Jesus said no man can serve two masters simul-
taneously, he can love and serve only one of them at a time. In
temptations, Jesus sought this refuge by appropriating the Word of
God at each occasion. The result of His resistance (Matt 4:10) was
Satan's flight (Matt 4:11). Christ is the model. Note, too, the episode of
spiritual strife in Peter's life (Luke 22:21-36), and the anticipated
turnabout of Peter in taking a stand against the Devil through submis-
sion to God (Luke 22:32).
3. "Draw near" (e]ggi<sate) 4:8. God is not only to be obeyed, but
He must be worshipped. In the OT (Exod 19:22; 30:20; Lev 10:3) the
word is used of the Hebrew priest approaching God in both Taber-
can. The construction is parallel to the previous conditional statement
(4:7). Here it is rendered, “When you draw near to God, He will draw
near to you."
4. “Cleanse” (kaqari<sate) 4:8. The word draw near was also
used of the pious turning to God (Jer 30:20). This approach required
the worshipper to cleanse himself before attempting to worship God.
Matt 23:26 records Jesus' teaching that any ritual will only hold value if
the worship is morally clean. Jesus adds to the teaching about cleansing
in John 13. There the emphasis is on both the believer's responsibility to
appropriate and the Savior’s part in providing cleansing.
As the priests entered the Tabernacle, they paused In the court-
to wash their hands and feet in order to be acceptable to God and
avoid judgment (Exod 30:19-21). Jesus' teaching about the large and
small obstructions in the eye (Matt 7:3ff.) concern cleansing as a
prerequisite to any effective moral correction. The statement about
“hands” and "hearts" symbolizes "deeds" and "thoughts." The word
sinners" specifies the believer who has "missed the mark"; this failure
must be cleansed before genuine worship can be enjoyed (4:8).
The two aorist imperatives are "cleanse," which emphasizes the
purging of our deeds, and "purify." The noun, kaqaro<j, is used of the
body without the smearing of paint or oil by Xenophon.27 He also
employs it of wheat stripped of its chaff28 and of an army stripped of all
27 Xenophon, Oeconomicus, X.7.
28 Ibid XVII. 8 9.
128 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
but its very best warriors.29 The central idea in every case is that the
subject is free from anything that would diminish its full value.
]Agni<sate translated "purify," on the other hand, is used of moral
purity accomplished by acts of a dedicated will. It places one in a
condition, prepared for worship (see also a]gni<zw, 1 Pet 1:22 and 1 John
3:3). ]Agno<j is used of cleansing from ceremonial defilement in the
LXX and in John 11:55 and Acts 21:24, 26; 24:18.
The Levitical priest had to be cleansed before he served God. At
the same time, the heart had to be purified, that is, separated from
everything that might cause uncleanness, (especially see 1:6ff.). In Luke
11:39-42, Jesus distinguishes between apparent, outward holiness and
the separation which always can be detected by the One who looks on
the heart (also Jas 5:2). When the believer rests in the wisdom of God,
both that which gives rise to the sin (1:14) and the enactment of
subsequent evil deeds are to be dealt with. Jesus' wise instruction must
be applied to the spiritual condition. The word "heart" depicts the seat
of the emotions and of thought, even of one's desires and under-
standing, and especially of all these elements of personality crystalizing
in the action of the will, the root of one's conduct. The word "sinners”
(a[martoloi<) identifies those who sin in full view of everyone, in a
notorious fashion (4:8). In parallel with the idea of the cleansing of the
heart, the sort of sin to be dealt with is failure, the believer's failure to
trust God and His will for the Christian's life. This is sin which God
alone can detect, but, once specified by the Spirit's conviction, the
believer is the only one who can turn alternatively to God in faith.
The Renewal of Fellowship
The next five aorist imperatives describe the characteristic acts of
the process of repentance--as our Lord sees it. Again, it should be
noted that these are not options, they are steps in one's change which
God commands (4:9-10). Once again, the Beatitudes of Jesus are the
background to James' words (Matt 5:4 and Luke 6:25). The "mourning”
in Matt 5, as in James, is not over sin generally expressed in the world,
but sin as discovered in the individual who then repents and is
subsequently comforted (paraklhqh<sontai). Only then is the believer
The first of these commands is talaipwrh<sate; the noun form
indicates misery and distress (4:9).30 Repentance begins within. Jesus
commanded His disciples to take up their cross and deny themselves.
The believer who admits to having sinned is "crushed" in his spiritual
29 Ibid VIII.117.
30 BAGD 810.
Burns: JAMES, THE WISDOM OF JESUS 129
consciousness. This word is used of undergoing hardship (Jer 4:13,
20; Isa 33:1). Here James emphasizes the personal initiative, ""Be
They must "mourn" and "weep" also. "Mourn" (penqh<sate)
expresses a self-contained grief, not normally visible. This godly sorrow
is commended by Jesus in Luke 6:25 and Mark 16:10. It indicates a grief
that leaves a heartache. In the two verses cited, this "mourning" is
coupled with “weeping” (klau<sate). The internal grief brings tears to
the eyes; inner feeling is communicated. This weeping is a loud
expression of pain or sorrow; it is even used of a lament for those who
have died (John 11:31; Matt 2:18).
But repentance transcends feeling, no matter how deeply seated,
and it goes past a display of this grief. It also demands change. The
verb metatraph<tw ("to turn about, turn into") emphasizes change by
one's turning.31 This is the only use of this word in the NT (4:9).
The end result of the believer's repentance is the Lord's renewal to
unrestricted fellowship (4:10). What has the repentant believer lost in
the process of renewal--nothing. He has taken his proper place; this is
suggested first in v 6 (tapeinoi<j) and again in v 10 (tapeinw<qhte). These
four verses form a unit. The word tapeino<w means ""to confess and
deplore one's spiritual insignificance." The aorist passive has, here, the
significance of the middle voice, "deplore yourself," "count yourself
The believer who counts the Lord's wisdom as precious counsel is
rewarded. The Lord will raise him up (4:10). This parallels Jesus'
promise in Matt 23:12 and Luke 23:12 where the contexts have to do
with humility; Jesus' parable about a display of pride in prayer (Luke
18:9-14) illustrates the need for humility by the religious.
God's attitude toward the humility of repentance is to exalt the
humble. The raising from humility here is not an elevation in the social
scheme of things, but a drawing up into an acceptance in the spiritual
realm--unhindered fellowship. This is a command with a promise.
James returns to the practical question of unity within the Body of
Christ in 4:11. Katalalei?te, the present imperative, instructs God's
people to "'stop defaming, talking against" one's fellow Christians; the
practice had been in progress among them. Perhaps this is one of the
things that the previous catena of aorist imperatives directed the
repentant believer to care for. Even if the criticism against another
Christian is true, caustic activity can only hurt the Body; it also
obligates the critic for criticism by the same standards of conduct.
Jesus' wise counsel stipulates this in Matt 7:1ff. and Luke 6:37. Talking
31 Abbott-Smith, Greek Lexicon 288.
130 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
against the brother or sister disregards the purpose of the "kingly law,"
that is, to be a "guide for people who wish to please God. Speaking hard
words about one another is encouraged by pride which is evil (4:16)
and which leads to conflict among believers (4:1-2). The Lawgiver
alone has the right to discriminate (4:12). We do not have the advantage
necessary to be able to save or to destroy, so we do not have the right
Man's dependent nature should keep him from acting indepen-
dently of God. God's will, and not personal judgment, should provide a
basis for human decision and as a guide about how to plan and execute
one's life (4:15; Luke 12:28; 13:32-33). These were well-to-do believers
whose whole life consisted in traveling for trade and profit. God filled
no essential category in their lives (4:16).
The words a@ge nu?n (4:13) are equivalent to "come now" or "see
here" (cf. Matt 26:65). This too is the counsel of wisdom. The intention
of this command is to reprove those already guilty of making plans
which exclude God. A calculated arrogance in which they will do what
they like, where they like (th>n po<lin means "this city") and for as long
as they wish. Even if there would be no arrogance in evidence, God is
still left out. Note how the use of kai> separates the various elements of
the intended plan in v 11. The wisdom of Jesus in Matt 6:34 provided a
background for these words. The common idea is preoccupation with
oneself. The Matthean verbs merimnh<shte and merimnh<sei concern the
matter of a person's trust in God (6:19-34). The verb merimna<w means
"to care," "to be anxious," and in 6:19-34 the idea is "worry," "self-
concern for security." The use of the future tense in Jas 4:13 indicates
that specific plans are made (will go, will make, will buy, will sell) with
no intention of change.
Wealth is not the highest value. Patience is the alternative to
grasping (5:1-6). Jas 5:1 repeats the command for attention, as at 4:13
(a@ge nu?n) "come now," "see here." Again, the purpose is to reprove.
The nu?n intensifies James' insistence, "without delay."32 In addition to
the word "weep" already used in 4:9, James employs the word "howl"
(o]lolu<zontej). It indicates the nature of the crying--a howling because
of distress.33 Here, it is the distress borne out of repentance. Though
used only here in the NT, the LXX uses it often, at times of violent grief
(Joel 1:5, 13).34
The warning here (5:1-6) is addressed to believers to disuade them
from setting a high value on wealth. Had the idea been to address the
32 Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (New
33 BAGD 567.
34 Thayer, Lexicon 567.
Burns: JAMES, THE WISDOM OF JESUS 131
unsaved, James would have presented an appeal to be saved. In
addition, the coming of Christ is cited as a benefit in 5:7; this would not
be a comfort to the unbeliever. The wise (Matt 6:19; Luke 12:33) are
those who do not make riches their treasures (5:2).
In the second part of this chapter (5:7-12), the alternative to the
grasping of materialism is stated: patience. The imperative makro-
qumh<sate is found here and in v 8. This word describes an attitude
which can endure delay, bear suffering and still never gives in. It is an
aspect of the Holy Spirit's life expression (Gal 5:22). The same word is
used of God's being content to wait in his longsuffering toward men.
The illustration in 5:7 bears out this thought; it also uses the present
imperative "behold." The background of the expectant farmer who
orders his life along lines of patience forms the chief character (also in
Matt 13:30). The preciousness of the fruit justifies the waiting until the
heavenly gifts are received.
The imperative, "stabilize, strengthen!" (5:8), in tandem with the
second use of makroqumh<sate specifies that the believer's stance is not
just to await the inevitable restitution, but to nourish the activity of the
resolution. We must will to wait for God's time to enrich us according
His will; he has promised to care for us until He rewards us (5:8).
This is a cure for "double-soulness." The employment of the word in
the LXX most often describes strengthening the body with food,
though it specifies God's working in men's spiritual quotient (cf. 1 Pet
3:17).35 God's reward is not a compounded interest on all the valued
things we have done without; it is life on a different plane (John 14:6)
and in the presence (h[ parousi<a) of Him whose coming is imminent
(pro> tw?n qurw?n e@sthken, 5:9). Because His presence will be our
reward, we are encouraged against continuing to blame one another
for unmerited distress. Mh< stena<zete means, "Stop complaining!"
(Perhaps inwardly, since the word denotes a feeling which is internal
and unexpressed, an inward feeling of a grudge against another.)
Jesus' word of wisdom to the persecuted is first found in Matt
5:10-12. James calls our attention (i]dou<) to those who proved them-
selves constant: Job and the prophets. They refused to renounce God;
their temper did not easily succumb to suffering. In Job, u[pomonh< is
used 14 times.
The final reaction of the "enwisened" believer occurs in 5:12. Even
more important than the avoidance of a grudging attitude, which may
lead to the misuse of the tongue, there is a danger in using oaths. This
oath is a reference to private assertions. There is no idea of taking a
public oath in a courtroom. It is the believer's duty to be constantly
35 Hatch and Redpath, Concordance 2.893.
132 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
truthful. The use of oaths, half-serious, half-profane, was common in
1st century conversation. James says "stop swearing." Swearing is only
necessary where truth is of little importance. Jesus warned against
swearing (Matt 5:34-37). Of all the sins involving speech, this is the
most serious; it denies the transcendence of God. Swearing places God
in obligation to the oath employed. There are OT passages which seem
to approve swearing; these occasions are emphases on one's faith in
Jehovah as symbolized by an oath. They are not placing God under
Because the use of oaths would sooner or later lead to excuses, and
then on to false statements, James counsels "Let your `yes' be `yes' and
nothing more. . . ." A breach of the Third Commandment is to be
The Wise Use of Prayer
In Jas 5:13-21, two final acts in faith are counseled by James. Pray
in every circumstance of life (5:13-20), and restore those living in
spiritual despair (5:21). The section begins with three questions; there
are twenty-two altogether in James.
The subject of prayer was first introduced in 1:5. Here (5:13),
prayer is the preferred alternative to reacting to circumstances and to
distress. The circumstances indicated by kakopaqei? are not those of
illness, but are matters of misfortune. In such difficulties, "continue
praying," James urges. But suppose we enjoy pleasant circumstances?
We must not forget God in good times, either. When the bounty of God
overflows, a wise Christian praises God—another aspect of prayer;
dependence is still acknowledged. The word ya<llw means "to sing or
to play on a harp"; it describes praise 56 times in the LXX: "continue
singing psalms." This epistle abounds everywhere with man's response
to God; a major aspect of wisdom is the response of prayer.
The last in a series of three questions, "Is any among you weak?"
occurs in 5:14. This weakness is the third of three possible conditions.
The condition suggests a person who realizes that he may be unable to
respond continuously to the Lord because of encroaching physical
illness. It is not specified that this sickness/weakness is necessarily
caused by personal sin, though it may be (1 Cor 11:30-32). The ka@n
with the subjunctive mood of the verb indicates the possibility of sin as
the cause of the weakness. The perfect with the verb "to be" empha-
sizes the continuous state of sin in which those whose sickness is the
result of sin will remain until forgiven (Matt 9:2-7).
When one is unable to complete the season of prayer which would
lead to forgiveness, the instruction given is to call for those who assist in
the ministry of such occasions. Visiting the sick was a normal function
Burns: JAMES, THE WISDOM OF JESUS 133
of the elders in a Jewish community (Matt 25:36) and seems to be more
than an act of charity. It was visitation aimed at restoration by way of
intercession. This, too, is the way of godly wisdom, in contrast to the
pagans' use of charms and incantation which was an aspect of worldly
The normal form of the imperative in James (aorist) emphasizes
each separate act, when the one in need cannot pray, those who are
called make supplications, "Let them pray" (5:14).1 Clem 5:9 mentions
supplications for those sick in soul and body.
The word "anointing" (5:4) is a participle (a]lei<yantej); as such, it
is secondary to the act of supplication. The aorist tense of the participle
ordinarily points it out as an activity previous to the main verb form,
here previous to the prayer offered. "Let them supplicate having
anointed him in the name of the Lord" (5:14b; cf. 3 John 7; Acts 5:41;
It is the prayer of faith that saves, not the anointing, which may be
the unmistakable assurance to the sick one that they have voluntarily
identified with his or her need (cf. Mark 6:13). This prayer proceeds
from a singleminded, "enwisened" man. Prayer (eu]xh<) has the sense of
"a vow" in the NT, and is most often used in that sense in the LXX.
Perhaps the idea is that a prayer of dedication is made as intercession
for the one who lies ill, expressing his stated intention to please God.
The prayer is based on Jesus; name. He is the prince of the new aeon;
the One to whom obligation belongs.
The result of this prayer of identification and dedication results in
the physical revitalization of the person fallen ill. The use of e]gei<rw
demonstrates that the salvation (sw<sei) designates physical healing.
Raising one up in other senses are inappropriate here (cf. Mark 1:31;
Matt 9:5). Should the cause of the illness be through sin, forgiveness
shall be extended to that one.
V 16 does not begin a new subject, rather it draws a conclusion
deduced from the previous section. The two sections are connected by
the word ou#n (therefore), not translated in some English versions. By
the imperative "confess," the emphasis continues on the practice of
mutual confession and intercessory prayer. It is God's appointed means
of physical and spiritual wellbeing in the gathering of believers.
The value of confession lies in its expression of the believer's
penitence, which furnishes a ground for others' confession. The word
e]comologe<w means basically "assuming a position of agreement" about
the nature of the specified sin and one's avowed intention that it be
brought to an end. The prefix suggests an audible confession to another
believer. The tense of this imperative suggests the continuing practice
of such confession. The verb "to pray" suggests a continuous readiness
134 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
to intercede on behalf of fellow Christians. The word "healing" always
refers to physical healing in the NT.
This strong prayer is made to be strong, effective by God's
response to it. Since God hears prayer, a Christian with a clear
conscience (cf. 4:3) should pray boldly (Prov 15:29) and should inter-
cede as Elijah did as an intercessor (5:17) (cf. Jesus' teaching, reflective
of the 1 Kgs 17 reference in Luke 4:25; see also Heb 4:15). The Christian
is charged to be fully aware of (ginwske<tw), and to act on the truth of
the great value of bringing the unresponsive Christian to repentance
(5:17) as Elijah did his generation through prayer and power. The
reduplication of the same idea of prayer (in both the noun and the
verb) places a special emphasis on the prophet's singling one item out
as a special item of prayer. It is not in the one who prays, but in the
prayer that the value lies.
The last imperative in James (5:20) suggests how important it is to
be fully aware continuously that the return of a sinning believer from
his unprofitable way of life has two immediate consequences: (1) he
will save a person (yuxh>n) from the result of persistent sins, and (2) will
cover sins (1 Pet 4:8 which quotes Prov 1.0:12), that is, will procure
forgiveness (Pss 32:1; 85:2; Deut 4:24; Rom 4:7). Kalu<ptein in connec-
tion with sins usually means "cause them to be forgotten" (5:20).
The Proverbs context (10:12) of this verse (5:20) says that love
covers all transgressions. In context, the idea is "love refuses to see
faults." James' use has reference to those who confess they have
wronged another, or even wronged each other. The result of the act of
confession is that the mutual love arising in such cases will cover up
whatever the wrong was, will cause all parties to disregard the sin. The
background of this verse is found in Matt 5:23f, 18:15, and Luke 17:3f.
where unforgiven sin precludes worship and repentance strengthens
The understructure of James' theology is the wisdom of Jesus, as
our Lord, the Savior taught it and lived it. It is theology requiring
faithful obedience. The tests in the book of 1 John are designed to
show the existence of the life of God in the Christian. The Epistle of
James indicates tests of faith. As we engage ourselves to walk wisely,
the function of wisdom will demonstrate the existence of faith and will
exhibit its vitality.
James has as his purpose the demonstration of a living faith. But
faith is more than an occasional thought; it goes beyond one's attitude.
It can only take shape in concrete situations. When the believer obeys
Burns: JAMES, THE WISDOM OF JESUS 135
the wise instruction of the Scripture, he walks in wisdom. That applica-
tion of wise words results in incidents of applied faith. Whether the
incidents of observed faith will emerge out of occasions of testing,
from situations where one has to decide the extent to which God will
control and be responsible for their needs, and under circumstances
where human perception would be limited. Wisdom is served when
the believer repents personally or engages in the process of restoration
of another believer. The proper use of wisdom allows the believer to
observe faith at work.
The wisdom James commands us to employ is taught by Christ
and emphasized by Paul. The theology of James features an under-
structure of the wisdom of Jesus which was taught by Jesus Christ and
featured in his life.
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