1:1 – Long traditions, which appear generally reliable, attribute this book to James, the half-brother of Jesus. (That is, the physical son of Joseph, or some other close male kinship within Jesus’ earthly family.) He was one of the foremost leaders of the church in the first century—the overseer of the mother church in Jerusalem for decades, apparently serving as the president of the first great church council (Acts 15), and noted by Paul as being one of the “pillar apostles” (Gal. 2:9) along with Peter and John. And yet, despite this lofty position of birth and ministry within the growing Christian movement, James make no claim to any of these positions of authority in introducing himself. Rather, he simply notes that he is “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is remarkable humility, especially for one who could legitimately and appropriately lay out a case for his authority to speak to the church via letters of apostolic counsel (a case that Paul often has to make for himself). It may simply be that James was so well known that no list of credentials was necessary; but even in that case, it says something about the man’s humility that he opts to present himself in the simplest way possible. He addresses himself here to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations,” which is an allusion to the diaspora of the Jewish community, but is probably intended here as a metaphor for the Christian church.
1:2-4 – James begins his letter with one of the most astonishing statements in the whole Bible: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” It’s not astonishing in being out of character for Scriptural advice; no, similar sentiments can be found elsewhere (see, for example, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:11-12). But it is astonishing in that it provides such a strong contrast to normal human behavior. We are not naturally wired to consider it pure joy when all the busyness, hassle, worry, frustration, and danger of life comes cascading down upon us. No, most of us respond with sadness, irritability, and impatience. Now, it may be the case that James particularly has in mind the case of believers who are undergoing persecution for their belief in Jesus—a situation in which believers are repeatedly exhorted to rejoice. But he goes a bit farther than most New Testament passages on this mark, by extending it to “trials of many kinds.” This would seem to include, at least at first glance, all those little trials of everyday life, which, in their volume and incessancy, sometimes feel even harder to bear than the ennobling journey of bearing up under persecution. As if James realizes that his counsel sounds ludicrous, he quickly goes on to explain the logic behind it: testings of this nature help us grow in perseverance, and perseverance is a necessary element of full Christian maturity. There are certain virtues that simply cannot be developed in the absence of suffering, and perseverance (like patience or courage) is one of them. If our lives were dreamy cakewalks filled with nothing but the thrilling consolations of God’s Spirit, and never a hardship to dampen our mood, then we would actually end up the worse for it by the end of our lives. We would not have had the opportunity to grow into people of great courage, endurance, and (to use an old KJV word) “longsuffering.” James, then, is calling on us to recognize, in the midst of the hardships and persecutions of this life, a precious and radiant opportunity to become more than what we are now. We must learn to see, in those difficult moments that we would rather avoid, the chance to gain that most priceless of treasures: character. If you want a happy life—a truly happy life—then you are far more likely to find it not in money or comforts or entertainments, but in becoming the sort of person who can bear up nobly under the sufferings of a fallen world. Ironically, then, the way to joy is through suffering, and only through suffering. So, in the midst of your trials, remember these things, and count the experience as “pure joy”—a gracious opportunity to become, in your own character, ever more like the character of God himself.