James 1:12-18 Blessed Endurance

James 1 begins by telling us to rejoice in trials, since we advance to maturity through them (vv. 2-4). The next paragraph says we need faith and wisdom to advance (vv. 5-12). James tells us how to understand the phenomena of testing and failure (vv. 12-18). He says, “Don’t be deceived” (v. 16), for it is easy to be deceived. He says, “Know this” (v. 19), because we must know some things to understand testing correctly.

When James says, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial,” it reminds us of other Scriptures. Psalm 1 blesses the man who loves God’s law, who bears fruit and prospers, while the wicked perish. Matthew 5 blesses Jesus’ disciples in their poverty of spirit and their hunger for righteousness. The kingdom is theirs and they will be filled. The Greek word for “blessed” means “happy” in ordinary speech. But the psalmist and Jesus and James have no ordinary happiness in mind. They think not of the fleeting pleasures of a satisfying meal or a good laugh. They have in mind the joy that comes from God. It lasts through persecution and trial, because God is in the trial.

James 1:2-4 describes the present benefits of trials. If we withstand our tests, they strengthen our character; they promote endurance and maturity. James 1:12 names the final result of trials: we receive the “crown of life.” In Scripture, crowns are splendid, golden things. They signify glory and honor. They express God’s pleasure, God’s reward, and the beauty God bestows. Scripture links them to the virtues God desires and to the blessings that attend His salvation.

Occasionally, we may hear a believer say he hopes to receive a certain crown in heaven. But this is misguided, for we are not competing for a small pile of crowns that God will distribute to super-Christians on the last day. No, Jesus wore a crown of thorns so that all who believe would receive the crown of life. God crowns every believer who remains faithful to the end. Jesus bestows crowns for His children. Paul says it this way: “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day – and not only for me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8).

Sadly, trials do not always produce maturity. When facing trials, some doubt God’s goodness and turn away from Him. Instead of growing deeper in faith and love, so that they long for the crown of life, they blame God for their troubles. James corrects this error in 1:13-15.

James knows that a test can be taken two ways. We can view it as a trial and turn to God for aid, so we persevere. Or we can read it as a tragedy, or as a senseless accident, or as a failure – on God’s part – to love and protect us. Worse yet, some who meet trials blame and attack God for them, accusing Him of malice. They say He tests them too severely, pushing them toward sin so they will fall. When they face tests, they do not endure, but give up. Believing failure is inevitable, they do fail, and then seek someone to blame. “God is tempting me,” they say (v. 13). “He is leading me to ruin.

James says that this is preposterous. He writes: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone” (v. 13). God never singles anyone out for impossible tests, tests they are bound to fail. God does not entice men and women to sin. To do so would be evil. Neither is God tempted to do evil, nor does He entice others to evil, for that would be evil, too.

God does test His people, of course. By His design, tests provide the opportunity to endure in faith, to grow strong, and to receive a crown. Yet God knows and controls all things. He knows that some will face tests and fail. So, the same event is a test from one perspective, for one person, and a temptation from another perspective, for another person. Does God lead people into temptation and sin? No, says James. If a test becomes a temptation, it is sinful human nature that makes it so. God does not “tempt anyone; but each one is tempted…by his own evil desire” (vv. 13-14). Jesus teaches us to pray that we would not be led into temptation. That is, He tells us to petition the Father to spare us from tests we would be doomed to fail. If we do fail, it is because our desires lure and entice us (v. 14).

James says God intends trials to promote endurance, so that we who love Him receive the crown of life (1:2-4, 12). To endure in trials, we need wisdom and faith (1:5-6). If we fail to endure, we should not blame God. If we succumb to temptation, it is because we let our desires drag us into sin. We have no more right to blame God for our sin than the Israelites had a right to blame God for their wilderness grumblings. God had shown every sign for His covenant love. If they doubted Him, the failure was theirs, not His. And so, it is for us.

The grumbling Israelites were quitters – or worse. They failed to persevere with God, but they did persevere in their rebellion. Their failure discloses evil desires, which, if full-grown, lead to death. James explains this in verse 15. He personifies evil, saying temptations and desires come together to “conceive.” Their offspring is named “sin.” Sin grows up and becomes a parent too. The name of its child is “death.” When we indulge our sinful desires, sin becomes a pattern and, eventually, a life-dominating force. Unchecked, sin brings death, as the Exodus generation sadly learned.

So, there are two potential paths in any test. Testing met with endurance makes us mature and complete; it leads to life. Or testing met with selfish desire leads to sin and death. “Death” is more than the death of the body, tragic as that is. Rather, just as faith and endurance lead to eternal life, so selfish desire and sin lead to eternal death.

This is the worst possible result of testing, an idea we might prefer to avoid. Therefore, James commands, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers” (v. 16). James warns his readers against blaming temptation and sin on God. He hopes his readers see the truth. Sin begins in our hearts, which are all too willing to follow evil desires. How foolish it is to succumb to temptation, then blame the results on God.

Because of our sin, tests can lead to spiritual death, but God designed them to bring us good. Tests stand among God’s gifts, not His curses. But if our sinfulness leads us to fail life’s tests, how can we escape our failures? The final two verses offer an answer (vv. 17-18).

James says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above” (v. 17). James emphasizes the source of the gifts, not the number of gifts. They come down “from the Father of lights,” that is, God the Creator. God gives good gifts, not impossible tests. We must view tests as gifts, not traps.

Yet we do succumb to temptations, and they do trap us. We fail to endure, fail to persevere in love for our God. So, do our failures thwart God’s plans? Do our sinful desires lead to hopeless ruin? No, there is hope, in two forms. First, if a genuine believer fails a test, he still loves God, even if imperfectly. God knows our weakness, knows that we are as changeable as He is changeless. Second, if a believer is liable to judgment, James later says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (v. 2:13).

If an unbeliever fails the test, God can use that failure to lead him to Christ. The prophets call this the gift of a new heart (Jer. 31:31-34). Jesus calls it being born from above (John 3:1-8). Paul calls it a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), and regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). James calls it birth through the word (v. 18). That is, God took counsel with Himself and resolved that He would not leave sinners in their plight. He decided to grant them spiritual life by “the word of truth.” This rebirth keeps sin from giving birth to death. It makes God’s children the firstfruits of His creation.

God will accomplish this spiritual birth by the “word of truth (v. 18). Clearly, God wills our salvation and achieves it through the gospel. Through preaching of Christ and His gospel, God draws people to Himself. This is the kindness and excellence of God. As the gospel wins the hearts of sinners, they freely choose the new life that He already willed for them. Because our life rests on God’s unchanging goodness, not our own changeable choices, it is secure. That is God’s gift; it proves His good intent in our trials.

James says God’s people are His firstfruits (v. 18). We are the first and the best of His “produce.” He will prove faithful. He will care for us year by year, even as He cared for Israel in the wilderness. This is what the tests should teach us. If we fail, our failure teaches us to turn to God for mercy, as He offers it in the gospel. Then as we persevere with Him in love, come what may, we will receive the crown of life that He has promised.

James 1:12-18 Study Questions:

What sinful and common response to trials and testing is James confronting in verse 13? How does he confront this sinful response? What does his response remind his readers of about the character of God?

What important truths about temptation does James teach in verses 14-15? How does he explain the progression of temptation and sin? What is the final end of unrestrained sinful temptation and desire?

What sinful attitudes lead people to succumb to temptation – and ultimately death? What seem to be keys to faithful endurance in the midst of trials?

Why might verse 17 point James’s readers back to the goodness of God as the giver of all gifts? What spiritual gifts has the Father granted to His children?

To what foundational truths does James call attention in verse 18? What does he mean by “the word of truth,” and what word might we use interchangeably with that phrase (see Eph 1:13 and Col. 1:5-6)? How does the word “firstfruits” in verse 18 describe the people of God? How is this verse an encouraging conclusion to this section of James’s letter, following some stern warnings?

James 1:2-12 The Trials of Life

If someone tells the truth in the wrong way, at the wrong time, it can bring dismay rather than help. Imagine, for example, that a man has for a year planned a week-long wilderness hike in the mountains, only to break a small bone in his foot just before departure. His doctor reports no permanent damage, but he must cancel the trip and stay off the foot for two weeks. Word of the injury spreads through his church, and soon a man arrives at this doorstep, wielding a Bible. “Cheer up,” the visitor says. “I found a passage in James, some Scripture that addresses your very situation.” He then reads James 1:2-4.

“So,” the meddler continues, “be glad this happened, for God intends to strengthen your character through it.” At this point, the would-be hiker might be seized by an urge to snatch the Bible from his counselor’s hands and use it as a blunt object to knock some sense into him while quoting Job’s speech about “miserable comforters” (Job 16:1-5). Of course, God can use all of life’s sorrows – and all its joys – to bring believers to maturity. But it is misleading to use James 1 as the word in grief counseling.

When James says believers should rejoice in trials because they test our faith and develop maturity, he addresses more than the hour of crisis or sorrow. James wants the church to live out its faith in the crucible of life, in all its tests. This includes tests born of hardship, such as accidents, sickness, poverty, and anxiety, but it also includes trials that spring from prosperity such as wealth, knowledge, skill, and high position. Both hardship and prosperity test our faith. Either one can prove a profession of faith to be genuine or specious. Hardship brings obvious trials, but success sifts us too.

When immersed in intense trials, people commonly ask the wrong questions: Why is this happening to me? Whose fault is this? Is it the result of my sin and folly? A result of satanic opposition? Instead, we should ask how we can grow to maturity through our trial. The greatest trial can at least teach us to seek God afresh. Severe suffering can break us down, and terminal illness hardly strengthens us for this life, but they still prepare believers for eternity. We rejoice in trials because our faith becomes mature through them.

So, James promises believers that trials will produce maturity (v. 4). But he adds conditions to his promise. First, we need wisdom to discern the meaning of the trial. Second, we must believe that God intends our good, that He allows trials because we need them (vv. 5-6). James says the goal of trials is “that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God” (vv. 4-5). The goal, says James, is that we “lack nothing” spiritually. God intends trials to produce endurance and maturity. But trials do not always lead to spiritual growth. Suffering can create fear, despair, a determination to “look out for number one,” or anger toward God. Abundance (which is also a trail) can lead to selfish indulgence. Therefore, James now says, we need to ask God for wisdom, so we can gain from trials (v. 5).

After James exhorts the church to view trials as a blessing and to seek wisdom to make them so, he briefly addresses the trials of riches and poverty (vv. 9-11). When James says, “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position” (v. 9), he presents a riddle. James calls the poor man a brother, but the second man is simply “one who is rich.” The “low position” of the rich believer is the same low position every Christian shares. We all bow to request mercy and forgiveness of our sin. The rich believer knows the ground is level at foot of the cross.

If this is right, then riches and poverty are indeed both trials. The poor man is little noted in this age, but he knows God. He is an heir of the kingdom; he possesses eternal life. The rich believer, however, knows he must take no pride in his social position, his worldly status. He may “fade away,” that is, die, in the midst of the business that makes him prominent. He knows he is no greater than any other man. He is a sinner, saved by grace alone. He boasts in God, not in his wealth (Jer 9:23-24).

James’s opening statement was a surprise: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials” (v. 2). But now James returns to the theme of trials: “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” (v. 12). This confirms that James’s first theme is the trials of life. We face short-term temptations and long-term tests. Some, such as illness, are obvious. Others, such as prosperity, are not. Yet God uses trials to reveal our spiritual flaws and to test our love for Him. So then, in time of trial, let us seek not simply to escape, but to find godly maturity.

We may look to Christ in two ways as we pursue this goal. First, Jesus faced trial after trial in this life. Satan tried Him directly in the wilderness temptations (Matt. 4:1-11). Jesus had “no place to lay his head,” so He faced the trial of poverty. Later, He faced hatred, verbal abuse, and physical abuse of every kind. Above all, He endured the trial of crucifixion before God the Father raised Him to life and to glory. Thus, He became the prime example of “the man who perseveres under trial” and receives “the crown of life” (James 1:12). Second, if we fail to persevere in trials and do not deserve to receive the crown of life, the gospel remains. Indeed, when we fail to persevere and we honestly take our failure to the Lord Jesus, confessing our sin, He will “give us birth through the word of truth” – that is, the gospel (1:18).

The Jewish Christians who read James needed to hear this teaching, and so do we. Many are strong in knowledge of faith, but weak in the life of faith. James brings a corrective. The trials of this life test our faith, pushing us to act, not just to think. If we withstand the tests of life, we see that our faith in Christ is genuine. Then, when God has confirmed our faith, He will grant us the crown of life eternal. Then we who love Him and grow in maturity toward Him will dwell with Him forever.

James 1:2-12 Study Questions:

Look through verses 1-12 and identify the main imperatives in these opening verses. What do these commands tell you about James’s goals for his audience as they endure “trials of various kinds”?

What are the intended results of trials and testing, according to James (vv. 3-4)? Why does James say that his readers “know” this? Why might James not have been overly specific in his identification of these “trails,” and what does this tell us about the kinds of trials he has in mind?

What conditions are attached to the God-intended results of trials (vv. 5-8)? What is necessary for us, as believers, to grow and persevere through trouble? How does James in these verses call for believers to seek wisdom, and what warnings does he offer?

How can verses 9-11 help us understand both poverty and wealth from a more biblical perspective? What do James’s commands tell us about the dangers, and the spiritual opportunities, of both situations?

If we understand verse 12 as the conclusion of this first section of James’s letter, how does this verse confirm the main theme of these opening verses? What does this verse suggest about the reward that is ahead for believers in Christ? Who receives this reward, and what is it, exactly? How should the hope of reward motivate Christians?

Introduction to the epistle of James

James is a beloved book, since it is so practical, so full of vivid exhortations to live a godly life. In a few pages, it offers concrete counsel on an array of issues that confront Christians daily: trials, poverty, materialism, pride, favoritism, justice, planning, prayer, illness, and more.

The epistle of James, like the Sermon on the Mount, is sublime and penetrating – perhaps too penetrating. James stirs us to action, but as it reveals our sins, we see that we cannot do what it commands. We cannot achieve holiness or maturity by striving. Unfortunately, James declares that obedience is the hallmark of genuine faith: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (1:22).

Since the author demands an obedience that we cannot render, we struggle to resolve the tension between the stringency of his demands and our failure to attain them. If this were Paul, he would turn to the work of Christ the Savior. But James never mentions the cross, the atonement, the death, or the resurrection of Jesus. He never mentions justification by faith or redemption. Indeed, the absence of these themes prompts some to wonder where redemption is found in James. James does use Jesus’ name twice (1:1; 2:1), but in both cases there is only a passing reference to Him, rather than an exposition of His person or work. Similarly, while the term faith appears fourteen times in James, eleven occur in 2:14-26, a discussion that stresses that faith without deeds is dead (2:17, 26). Nonetheless, James does have a gospel, and it is revealed in the broad sweep of the book.

The author of James calls himself “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). This James is the half-brother of Jesus, the natural son of Mary and Joseph. When the author calls himself “James,” without further identification, it implies that his audience already knows him so well that he can simply be “James” to them. James the brother of Jesus helped lead the Jerusalem church, making an important speech at the Council of Jerusalem. That council resolved that Gentiles, like Jews, are saved by “the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:11). James gave the concluding speech.

James had joined his brothers in mocking Jesus during his ministry. The first time John mentions Jesus’s siblings, they say, “You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do…Show yourself to the world.” Thus, “even his own brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:3-5). But Jesus graciously appeared to James after His resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7), and he became a pillar of the Jerusalem church.

In time, James became known as “James the Just,” due to his personal righteousness and his passion to promote righteousness in others. We see the same zeal in James’ epistle. He calls the law “the perfect law that gives freedom” (1:25) and “the royal law” (2:8). James subordinated his passion for the law to his greater passion for the gospel. James had a zeal for legal righteousness, but greater zeal for God’s grace.

James’s intended audience and the context of his epistle are indicated by its address to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” The expression “the twelve tribes” traditionally signifies Israel, and “the dispersion” refers to Jews scattered throughout the world. But James wrote especially for Jewish Christians. He was, after all, a church leader. Moreover, Paul and Peter established that the church is the true heir of God’s promises to the tribes of Israel. Also, the word dispersion can serve as a metaphor to indicate that believers are never fully at home in this world. Peter addresses his first letter to “elect exiles of the Dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1), but it is clear that these exiles are mostly Gentiles. So, James envisioned a wide audience.

James assumed that his audience was familiar with life in Israel. For example, he mentions early and late rains; two rainy seasons are a distinct trait of eastern Mediterranean weather. James also refers to a synagogue (2:2) and assumes his audience takes pride in its monotheism (2:19). All this implies that he is writing to people who live in the land of Israel and call Jesus “Lord” (2:1). In short, while James surely writes for the whole church, he primarily addresses Jewish Christians. As the scribes and Pharisees demonstrate in the Gospels, there are people who know a great deal and take pride in that. But James stresses the need for knowledge that is personal and moral, not just intellectual (2:19). James prods theologically informed people to live their faith, rather than resting in doctrinal rectitude.

The dominant structure of James runs from 1:26 to 4:10. There James names three tests of true religion, shows that no one can meet them, and then calls for gospel repentance. He prepares for this in 1:1-25 by showing that life constantly tests or tries everyone, whether in the form of sudden trials or ongoing challenges, such as the need to handle poverty and riches faithfully. From 4:11 to 5:20, James shows how true faith manifests itself: in humble planning, constant prayer, and care for our brothers. How blessed we students of James will be if we follow where he leads and humble ourselves before the Lord when we falter.

Getting Started Questions:

Consider a time when you were challenged or confronted (for example, by a friend, family member, spiritual leader, mentor) because your actions were not lining up with your words and/or beliefs. How did that person seek to convince you of your error? How did you feel when confronted? How did you respond?

While each of us faces different levels of trial and trouble throughout our lives, we all deal with hardship, struggles, and various forms of pain (physical, emotional, and relational). What are some of the ways in which you have sought God, in the midst of trials, over the years? What false views or perspectives on God have you had to battle as you have faced various degrees of suffering?