NT Sunday School Lesson 42: James

MsWe do not know who the author of this epistle was (there are several persons named James in the New Testament), but tradition says that it was James, the brother of Christ and the presiding elder in Jerusalem after Christ’s death. (See, for example, Acts 15:13, where he presides over the Jerusalem conference called to deal with the Gentiles joining the early Church.)

What do we know about Jesus’ family’s relation to him prior to the crucifixion? (See, for example, John 7:1-5.) When do you think James became a follower of Christ? Is 1 Corinthians 15:7 relevant? Does that verse suggest any reason that James might be more sympathetic to Paul than we sometimes assume?

Chapter 1

Verses 2-4: The word translated “temptations” also has the meaning “trials.” (The Greek word can mean either, but “trials” seems to fit the context better here.)

How can we count our trials as “complete joy”?

In verse 3, the word translated “patience” could also be translated “endurance.” How does the testing of our faith bring about endurance?

Verse four tells us that we should “let endurance [patience] take its complete [perfect] effect [work].” What does that mean?

James explains that endurance will make us “perfect,” and he gives two synonyms for “perfect”: “entire” (or “whole”) and “lacking nothing.” This is the usual meaning of “perfect” in the New Testament—not “without flaw” or “able to do anything” (two common modern interpretations of perfection). For example, James uses the same word here for perfection that is used in Matthew 5:48, and neither of them mean “perfect, in other words flawless.” How might this understanding of perfection make us more comfortable with the possibility of being perfect in this life, even if we are not flawless in this life? Can a person be whole or without lack and, at the same time, not be flawless?

Verses 5-7: What is the connection of verse 5 to those the precede it?

Notice the footnote that gives another translation for “upbraideth.” It can also be translated “ungrudgingly.” The Father gives to us generously (“liberally”) and ungrudgingly (“upbraideth not”). Is James creating an implicit contrast between the Father’s answers to prayers and our responses to those who are in need?

In verse 6, notice the footnote in the LDS edition: “wavering” means “doubting.” Why can’t the doubter expect to receive anything from the Lord (verse 7)?

Verse 8: Is this verse the conclusion of the topic discussed in verses 5-7 or the beginning of a new topic? In either case, can you explain how it fits with the verses around it?

Why does James describe doubting as being “double-minded”? Can you think of examples of what it means to be double-minded? What makes the double-minded person unstable? Is Christ saying much the same as this verse when he says that we cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6.24, Luke 16.13, and 3 Nephi 13.24)?

Verses 12-15: As in verse 2, “temptation” in verse 12 means “trial” or “test” more than it does “temptation.” Those who become approved and who love the Lord will receive a crown of glory. What does it mean to become approved? How do we do that?

In verse 13, why does James warn us against saying that the Father is testing us? That seems to be a common way of speaking—what’s wrong with it? Is he warning against a particular kind of testing? Is may be helpful to know that there is only one word in Greek for both “test” and “tempt”? Which meaning do you think James intends in verse 13?

In verse 14 how does he explain our trials of faith? If this is an accurate way of describing our trials—if they are the result of our own lusts—what is Satan’s role in tempting / trying us?

Note that “drawn away” translates a verb used to describe how a hunter lures wild game out into the open, and that “enticed” translates a verb used to describe baiting fish or bird traps. Therefore, we might loosely translate this: “Every person is tempted when he is lured out by means of his own lusts and a trap for him is baited with them.”

The word translated “lust” includes what we would describe as lust as well as any other inordinate desire, so this is not just a description of how we are tempted and tried regarding sexual things (though those thing are certainly included). See Romans 7:19-23 for a similar, but more complicated description of this same point: we are tried by our own inordinate desires.

In verse 15 James uses the metaphor of procreation: we have lusts that conceive and give birth to sins; in turn, they conceive and give birth to death. (Here Paul’s discussion in Romans 5:14-21 and 6:3-11 is relevant.) Why do you think he uses that metaphor?

Verses 21-24: “Naughtiness” (verse 21) is too weak a translation for modern English readers; “evil” would be better. See the note on “engrafted” in the LDS edition.

James says that because God gives us every good thing (verse 17) we should put aside all sin and receive the gospel in humility. Why is humility necessary to receiving the gospel? Can we receive the gospel without putting aside all sin? Why or why not? How does James’s understanding of our reasons for repentance and obedience compare to Paul’s?

Compare what James says here about receiving the engrafted word to what Alma says in Alma 32.

In what kinds of ways do we deceive ourselves about our works (verse 22)? Why is this kind of self-deception like looking in a mirror (verses 23-24)? What is the point of James’s metaphor?

Verse 25: In verses 23 and 24, James described looking at oneself in a mirror. Notice the contrast he creates here: rather than to ourselves in a mirror, we should look to the “perfect law of liberty.” How does the previous metaphor of the mirror help him make his point here?

What is the perfect law of liberty? Why is it a law of liberty? Is 2 Nephi 2:27 relevant? How does the phrase “perfect law of liberty” contrast with the Pharisaic understanding of the law? In our own lives, do we think of the law as a law of liberty, or do we think of it as something more like the Pharisaic law?

Verses 26-27: We commonly use the second of these verses as a proof text (i.e., a text to support something we are teaching, such as in a Sacrament talk), but notice that it is intended as a contrast with verse 26: verse 26 describes those who think they are religious; verse 27 describes those who really are. What does verse 27 mean in context? Does it fit our use of it as a proof text?

Why would having an unbridled tongue be a particularly apt description of the person who believes himself to be religious but isn’t? What does his tongue say that it ought not to say?

Why is the care of orphans and widows a particularly apt description of the truly religious?

What does it mean to be “unspotted from the world”? (Compare the JST.)

We might think of verse 27 as the thesis statement of James’s letter. As you read the letter as a whole, ask how each part is related to that thesis. How, for example, is James 1:5 relevant to the fact that genuine faith issues in works? How are verses 2 and 3, which remind us that we must be patient in trial and persecution, relevant to that fact?

Chapter 2

Verses 1-4: In James’s day, a gold ring was not only a sign of wealth, it was also a sign of authority. How does the kind of discrimination that he describes in these verses mean that we are “judges of evil thoughts”?

Verses 5-7: How do these verses apply to us? Who are the poor that we despise today? James says that the saints give precedence and honor to the rich even though the rich oppress them. Do we do anything that is comparable?

Verses 8-9: What two ways of living is James contrasting here?

Verse 10: What does this mean? Why isn’t this a message of despair—what can give us hope in the face of such a message?

Verses 14-20: Is what James says here in conflict with what Paul taught, namely that we are saved by faith rather than works? (Compare Romans 3:28 and 4:4-5.) If not, why not? How can these two things be reconciled?

What does verse 19 suggest about doctrinal disputes between us or between us and non-Latter-day Saints? Why does James include what he says in verse 19 as part of talking about why works are necessary?

Chapter 3

Verse 1: The Greek word translated “masters” in the King James version would be translated “teachers” in contemporary English. Why is James counseling those to whom he writes that not many should be teachers?

What does he mean that those who teach “shall receive the greater condemnation” or judgment? Presumably this is the judgment the teacher will receive if he or she fails. Whose judgment does he have in mind here, that of God or that of those who are taught?

What is the significance of the fact that James says “we shall receive the greater condemnation”?

Verse 2: Here is another translation of the first sentence: “We all stumble in many ways.” Again, James uses a second person plural verb rather than a second or third person verb. Why?

What is the one sin that everyone shares? Is James talking here about only teachers or about truly everyone?

Verses 3-7: What is the point of these analogies? When James refers to the “whole body” (verse 3) and the ship (verse 4), is he referring to the individual person or to the Church as a whole?

In verse 5, the word translated “matter” might be better translated “wood”: “How great a pile of wood a little fire kindleth!” Some (such as the New American Standard Bible) translate this as “See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!”

Verses 8-9: If it is impossible to tame the tongue, what is the point of James’s advice?

Verses 10-12: What is it that ought not to be (verse 10)?

Verse 13: The word “conversation” is misleading, though it looks like it continues the previous discussion of what the tongue can do. In fact, the Greek word means “behavior,” which is what the word “conversation” meant at the time of the King James translation.

What does it mean to have wisdom and knowledge (i.e., understanding)?

Are these verses written to the Church as a whole or are they directed at teachers? If they are directed at teachers and chapter 2 was directed at teachers, what might we conclude about the intended audience for James 3:1-12?

Verses 14-15: How does the wisdom that James describes here contrast with the wisdom and knowledge he referred to in verse 13? Can you give an example of this kind of wisdom?

The Greek word translated “strife” in verse 14 is an unusual word. It most commonly means “a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means” (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Greek Literature). What might it mean in this context?

What advice does James give to those who have jealousy and selfish ambition (“bitter envying and strife”) in their hearts?

What does it mean to say that one kind of wisdom comes from the earth?

Verses 16-18: James summarizes what he has been saying. How can wisdom be pure? How does his admonition here relate to what he earlier said about pure religion?

How can wisdom be peaceable? Gentle? Easy to be intreated? Full of mercy? How can it have good fruits? How can it be without partiality or hypocrisy?

Chapter 4

Is James taking up a completely new theme at this point in the letter, or is there some connection between his previous discussion of the relation of faith and works and the discussion of teaching that we find here?

Verses 1-5: According to James what explains the “wars” that occur among the members of the Church—among the members of a family? If that is the cause of strife among us, what will be its cure?

How does James say we try to get what we want (verse 2)? What way does he say we should go about getting those things? (“You kill, and desire to have” could also be translated “you kill and are fanatics.”)

How are these verses related to James 1:27?

Suppose we say, “I’ve tried that way of getting what I want and it didn’t work.” What is James’s reply (verse 3)? How does he explain the failure of our prayers? Why does he use adultery as a symbol for all evil desire (verse 4)? (The Old Testament equation of adultery with idolatry may be to the point here.) What is friendship with the world? It isn’t clear what scripture James is quoting in verse 5; perhaps it is one we no longer have.

Verses 6-8: In this verse he quotes from the Greek version of Proverbs 3:34.

What does it mean to say that the Father gives grace to the humble?

Is there a difference between submitting to God and resisting the devil, or are these two ways of saying the same thing (verse 7)? How do we submit to the Father?

How do we draw nigh to God (verse 8)?

What does it mean to cleanse our hands? How do we do it?

What does it mean to purify our hearts? How do we do that? What is the difference between cleansing our hands and purifying our hearts?

Notice that this verse gives us a solution to the problem of doubting (cf. James 1:6-8): cleanliness of hand and purity of heart. How do they overcome our doubts?

Is “cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded” a case of parallelism, where “cleans your hands” is another way of saying “purify your hearts” and “double minded” is another way of saying “sinners”? If so, what do those parallels teach us?

Verses 9-10: Why is James advising them to mourn (verse 9)? It doesn’t make any sense for this to be a general admonition, since the gospel brings peace and happiness. What are the particular circumstances in which he might admonish them to mourn?

What does it mean to be humble in the sight of the Lord (verse 10)? How does that differ from being humble otherwise? What is genuine humility? What does it mean to be lifted up?

A Comparison of James and the Sermon on the Mount (with thanks to Art Bassett)

Sermon on the Mount


Blessed are they who mourn (5:4) Count it all joy when ye fall into . . . afflictions (JST 1:2)
Blessed are the meek (5:5) Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:. . . . Receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls  (1:19)God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble (4:6)Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up (4:10)

Who is . . . endued with knowledge among you? let him shew . . . his works with meekness of wisdom (3:13)

Blessed are the merciful (5:7) But the wisdom that is from above is . . . full of mercy (3:17)For he shall have judgement without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy (2:13).The Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy (5:11)
Blessed are the pure in heart (5:8) Purify your hearts, ye double minded (4:8)The wisdom that is from above is first pure (3:17)
Blessed are the peacemakers (5:9) The wisdom that is from above is . . . peaceable (3:17)The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace (3:18)
Blessed are ye which are persecuted . . . for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you (5:12) Take . . . the prophets, . . . for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience (5:10)
Swear not at all. . . . But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil (5:34, 37) Swear not, . . . but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation (5:12)
Love your enemies (5:44) If ye fulfill the royal law . . . Thou shalt love thy neighbors as thyself, ye do well;  But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin (2:8-9)
Be ye therefore perfect (5:49) The trying of your faith worketh patience . . . let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect (1:4)
When thou doest thine alms, . . . thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly (6:3, 4) Pure religion and undefiled . . . is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction (1:27)
But when ye pray, use not vain receptions, as the heathen do (6:7) Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts (4:3)
Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal (6:19) Ye rich men, weep and howl . . .Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered and the rust of them shall be a witness against you (5:1-3)
Take no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things itself (6:34) Ye that say, Today or to morrow we will go into such a city, . . . and buy and sell . . . .  Ye know not what shall be on the morrow. . . . Ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that (4:13-15)
Judge not that ye be not judged (7:1) He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law (4:11)
Ask, and it shall be given you; . . . for every one that asketh receiveth (7:7) If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, . . . and it shall be given him (1:5)
You shall know them by their fruits. . . . Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit (7:16, 19) I will shew thee my faith by my works (2:18)
And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man (7:26) Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves (1:22)To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin (4:17)

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