This commentary is part of the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series. This series has a unique layout. The commentary for each paragraph is broken down into several sections. The first section is “Literary Context,” which shows how the paragraph fits into the overall flow of the letter. The next is “Main Idea,” which may help in coming up with a main thought for a sermon. The three following sections are “Translation,” “Structure,” and “Exegetical Outline.” Then follows the section entitled “Explanation of Text.” This section gives the Greek of each verse and makes exegetical comments based on the Greek. This would be especially helpful for text study. The final section for each paragraph is “Theology in Application.” This section makes specific contemporary applications. These features make the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary a useful series for preaching.
Blomberg and Kamell’s volume on James is a strong contribution to this series. Blomberg and Kamell say that there are three main emphases in James: 1) trials and temptations, 2) wisdom and speech, and 3) wealth and poverty.
While these themes are helpful and certainly present in James, one wonders why faith and works are not included as one of the main emphases. Blomberg and Kamell treat faith and works under the theme of wealth and poverty because James discusses faith and works in that context. In 2:15-17 James says, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” But it should not be missed that for James the issue of faith and works is broader than the specific application to helping the poor. The issue of faith and works extends to everything he says throughout the letter. For example, in 1:22 James says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” This is connected to the command that James had just given: “Be… slow to speak and slow to become angry” (1:19).
Blomberg and Kamell’s second major theme (wisdom and speech) could also be questioned. It seems like wisdom and speech are two separate things. Yes, James wants us to be wise in the way we use God’s gift of speech. But it seems that wisdom in James is also connected to the theme of trials. Since James’ directive to ask for wisdom (1:5) comes directly after his exhortations to consider trials as pure joy, it makes sense to think that James wants us to ask God for wisdom to view trials in positive light. “Wisdom” in James has to do with more than just speech. It also has to do with the way we look at trials.
Nevertheless, it is true that those three themes (trials; speech; poverty and wealth) are very important to James. I highlighted these three themes in a recent Bible class on James.
Blomberg and Kamell give a good treatment of each of these three themes. On trials they offer the following helpful comments:
“To begin with, James does not command us to wear artificial ‘happy faces’ that so many seem to think are required in church or other Christian circles. Denying one’s true emotions seldom accomplishes anything good. But while we cannot will ourselves to be jovial rather than depressed, we can choose how to think” (59).
“Indeed, when [Christians] rely on [God] to preserve them, they grow, mature, and come out the other side of the trials stronger and more whole, character traits our world desperately seeks but desires to gain without the suffering that is usually required to obtain them” (60).
On wisdom and speech they offer the following:
“In Colorado, where both of this book’s authors have lived and taught, careless campers who leave one ember burning in a campfire can start wildfires that destroy tens and even hundreds of thousands of acres. James’ point [by saying “the tongue is a fire” (3:6)] is that the tongue can have the same effect: one careless statement can ruin careers and destroy lives” (157).
On issues of poverty and wealth, James says many things that challenge us to think about wastefulness and materialism (see especially 5:1-6). Some authors (Pedrito Maynard-Reid and Elsa Tamez) even argue that, for James, one cannot be both rich and Christian. Blomberg and Kamell do a good job of staying well-balanced. On the one hand, wealth is not a bad thing in and of itself. James gives Abraham (James 2:21) and Job (James 5:11) as examples of true believers. They were both blessed with wealth. On the other hand, James does warn that wealth can be turned into an idol. The following comments by Blomberg and Kamell strike a good balance:
“Despite some who have argued that for James one cannot be both rich and Christian, we have seen that 1:9-11 and 2:1-4 are best understood as depicting rich Christians, while 4:13-17 treats believers who are at least ‘middle-group’ if not more well-to-do. But it is true in these texts that James strongly warns followers of Jesus not to trust in material resources (4:13, 15-16), nor forget their transience (1:10-11; 4:14). Rather, we should use our surplus possessions to help the world’s neediest (1:27a), especially impoverished fellow believers (2:14-17)” (254).
At the very end of the commentary (254-263), Blomberg and Kamell provide a helpful wrap-up section on the theology of James. They have a separate section on many important themes in James: (Wealth and Poverty, Trials and Temptations, Wisdom and Speech, Prayer, Faith and Works, Law and Word, God, Christology, and Eschatology). They end by asking whether there is a unifying motif. The unifying motif they propose is this: “Because God never wavers in his character or purposes, believers should shun all duplicity or vacillation in their allegiance and obedience to Christ and emulate God’s trustworthy consistency” (261). You can indeed see this motif in much of the letter. It’s inconsistent to have faith and no deeds (2:14-17). It’s inconsistent to praise God and curse human beings (3:9). It’s inconsistent to favor the rich over the poor (2:1-4). It’s inconsistent to be double-minded (1:8; 4:8), with loyalties divided between God and the world (4:4). James wants us to strive for consistency, always depending on our gracious God who gives every good and perfect gift and who does not change like shifting shadows (1:17).
Overall, this is an excellent commentary that will be helpful to a pastor who is preaching or teaching James.
Craig Blomberg (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. He is author of seventeen books and more than eighty articles in journals and multi-author works.
Mariam Kamell (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is assistant professor of New Testament at Regent College. She is the author of several scholarly articles on James. Her dissertation focuses on soteriology in James and its relationship to earlier Jewish wisdom literature.