Overview of James
and Study of James 1-5
December 20th

Produced by The Listening for God Ministry
Copyright 2016

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Overview of the Letter from James

The letter from James consists of five relatively short chapters that emphasize a number of key themes, including listening and demonstrating oneís faith through moral behavior and good acts. This letter almost did not make the final cut for the collection of books in the Christian Bible, but was finally accepted.

The author is generally assumed to have been James, the son of Alpheus, and a Disciple of Jesus, who was described in Matthew 10:3 and verses in the other Gospels. Like Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, he was from Nazareth and was probably related to Jesus. Therefore, in accordance with Semitic tradition he is referred to as a brother of Jesus(1). There has been some speculation as to whether the author of the letter from James might have been the other Disciple known as James, the son of Zebedee, who was one of the first martyrs killed for his faith in Jesus. However, for various reasons, the prevailing opinion is that the author was James, son of Alpheus.

This James became the head of the church of Jerusalem and is mentioned in multiple places in the book of Acts. Note that it was James that Paul first met with when he went to Jerusalem to bring the offerings he collected for fellow Jews, as noted in Acts 21:18-25. Paul had also met with James and others on a number of key issues facing the church, such as the acceptance of Paul, as noted in Acts, the acceptance of the Gentiles, as noted in Acts 15, and the agreement for Paul to continue teaching the Gentiles in the way that he thought was appropriate, as recorded in Galatians 1-2.

Jamesí letter was addressed to all descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel that had been scattered around the world, but he may have also intended it to be read by anyone who had adopted the faith.

References used for the analysis of this book include the following:

  • Barclay, William, The Letters of James and Peter, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1960
  • Life Application Study Bible, New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, M; 1991 (with commentary from an inter-denominational team of experts)
  • Men's Devotional Bible, New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI; 1993 (with daily devotionals from Godly men)
  • The New American Bible, Sponsored by the Bishop's Committee of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Catholic Bible Publishers, Wichita, KS, 1970
  • Peterson, Eugene, The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language, NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO, 80920, 2005
  • Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus, The Apostles and the Early Church, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2007
  • ďSermon Library,Ē Noroton Presbyterian Church, Darien, CT www.norotonchurch.org/sermons/min_sermons.html

James 1-5 (Be Quick to Listen and Slow to Speak)

Please refer to one or more Bible versions of your choice to read this section. We recommend that you read at least two versions for added understanding. For your convenience, we have provided six links below, each of which takes you directly to today's chapters in a specific version:

Key Verse

Remember this, my dear brothers and sisters! Everyone must be quick to listen, but slow to speak and slow to become angry. Human anger does not achieve God's righteous purpose. So get rid of every filthy habit and all wicked conduct. Submit to God and accept the word that he plants in your hearts, which is able to save you.

James 1:19-21 (GNB)

Summary of Chapters

James opens the book by addressing the twelve scattered tribes and introducing himself as a servant and then encourages his audience to persevere through their trials and to continue to listen intently to one another and to the word of God:

    If you donít know what youíre doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. Youíll get his help, and wonít be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought.

    - James 1:5-6 (MSG)

    My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

    Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

    - James 1:19-22 (NIV)

In the second chapter James picks up the topic of letting oneís actions demonstrate that he or she has listened. He explains the importance of treating everyone equally, particularly within the church. He also builds on the concept of faith that we read about at the end of Hebrews. He noted a couple of the members of the Hall of Fame and asks ďwhat is faith without deeds?Ē Abraham and Rahab, for example, demonstrated their faith through bold action.

In chapter 1, James had counseled his readers to be slow to speak. In chapter 3, he explains what happens when we donít engage our minds and hearts before letting our tongue loose. The tongue is a powerful force that can be used for good or evil. One misspoken word from this small member of the body can start a fire and create chaos, like the rudder of a ship that sends it off course. Man has tamed animals but not his own tongue, explains James: "But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison (James 1:3:8 - KJV)."

Chapter 4 addresses the importance of submitting ourselves to God instead of becoming obsessed with the world and the things of temporary value within it. He references the tenth commandment when he explains that coveting is the root of many evils:

    What causes fights and quarrels among you? Donít they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

    - James 4:1-3 (NIV)

He also reminds us not to boast about tomorrow, because we really donít know what will happen. Those who put their faith in the world feel confident in boasting, but those who have faith in God acknowledge Godís will. James closes the letter in chapter 5 by reminding the people to submit to God, suffer patiently, and pray in good times and bad.

Reflection and Application

We are grateful that this book is included in the Bible to remind us of the importance of listening and demonstrating our faith. The NIV version of James 1:19 has been one of my favorites since we taught it to the young children in Vacation Bible School many years ago. Someone had woven together a memory lyric using the theme from ďHere We Go Around the Mulberry Bush:Ē

    Be quick to listen and slow to speak
    Slow to speak
    Slow to speak

    Be quick to listen and slow to speak
    James one-nineteen.

I adopted it as a phrase on which I could meditate when I knew that I needed to concentrate on listening to someone else before I spoke. This method is valuable in many situations, particularly when you have an opposing view. If we take time to sincerely listen to the person and play back what we think we heard, then we have a chance to win them over, and will be given an opportunity to say our own piece. But if we barge into the conversation with reckless abandon and try to out talk the other person then we will only encounter frustration as each side digs its heels in further.

After using this advice for a while I also realized that James also intended for this phrase to apply to the discipline of listening for God. In that sense, itís a key verse for the whole Bible 365 Study and the Listening for God Ministry. Our goal in the ministry is to encourage people to listen for God even in the middle of their noisy and busy lives Ė and then respond to what he says. Our goal in Bible 365 is to encourage people to listen for Godís word in scripture and to use that study time as a means to establish a heart and mind that is open to hearing God at any time Ė not just when reading the Word.

Itís difficult to hear God when the world is shouting at us and waving its fancy bling in our eyes. The whisper and hand of God may go by unnoticed in the same way that we might miss out on the beauty of a flower as we hurry to our next destination or pass up the opportunity to hear a world famous violinist playing in a subway station because we have an appointment with a very important person. We may have our head focused down on our normal path and miss out on the unusual sight of a camel walking down the sidewalk of New York City. But when we take time to read Godís word and wrestle with it then we start to clear our own minds to hear what he is saying and become more aware of the world around us. We may even recognize his voice when he calls.

The next time you talk to someone, make sure you are quick to listen to what he or she is saying.

The next time you read the Bible, ensure that you are quick to listen to what is said and linger on the words without letting your mind wander.

The next time you walk down a street or through a garden or forest, keep your head up, and eyes wide open to see the panorama that God has painted for you.

For an example of how we too easily walk by great beauty, check out the link to the article below from the Washington Post, which describes an experiment in which the acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell performed anonymously in a DC Metro station. How many people do you think recognized or even acknowledged the quality of his performance? Notice who led the way in appreciation: "Pearls Before Breakfast"

For further reflection on chapter 2 from this book, we recommend an essay by Rev. Mark Daniels of the Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan Ohio: "Seeing and Serving the 'Invisible' People"

For musical inspiration, we recommend a beautiful version of a traditional folk carol written by John Jacob Niles following an experience he had in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina:

"I Wonder as I Wander," performed by Julie Andrews

Questions and Prayers for Further Reflection

    Related Questions
    1. What is your favorite flower?
    2. Why is it so hard for us humans to listen?
    3. What is God trying to get you to hear today?

    Recommended Prayer
    Father in heaven, we know you have many messages for us. Help us to listen and follow.

    Prayer Concern


    (1) Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus, The Apostles and the Early Church, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2007, p.63

    Looking Ahead

    Tomorrow's reading: Overview of 1 Peter and study of 1 Peter 1-5 (Marks of the Christian Life)

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