Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
1. A gift that brings divine light (1:17)
a. The nature of the gifts (1:17a-c)
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.” Anything that is good in us comes from God. He gives only good gifts. The Lord introduced this subject in the Sermon on the Mount: “What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give me a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Matt. 7:9-11).
Perhaps the Lord had in mind His own temptation experience in the wilderness. After a forty-day fast, when He was famished and weak with hunger, Satan came and offered Him a stone (Matt. 4:1-4) – along with the suggestion that He exercise His deity to take care of the needs of His humanity. Jesus knew that, at that moment, it was the good and acceptable and perfect will for Him that He be hungry, and He quoted the Word of God to the devil to prove it.
God gives only good gifts. All that is good in our lives comes from God. God is good, and He alone is absolutely good. Far from being the source of temptation to do evil, God is the Source of all that is good.
b. The nature of the giver (1 :17d-e)
God is unchallengeable. He is “the Father of lights,” and He is unchangeable: “with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” God’s first work in creation was to command the light to shine out of darkness. “Light, be!” He said, and light was. Later, He commanded the sun, the moon, and the stars to shed their light upon the earth. Fallen man, in his abysmal folly, soon forgot the One from whom all light comes, “the Father of lights,” and substituted the sun, the moon, and the stars themselves as objects of worship. In Egypt, for instance, the reigning pharaoh was believed to be the son of the sun, the incarnation of Ra, the sun god. The Babylonians invented astrology and the worship of the stars. Abraham himself came from Ur, a Chaldean center of moon worship.
The great stars that burn and blaze by the countless billions in the sky are merely the handmaidens of the living God. David knew! He sang, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork… There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard”(Ps. 19:1, 3). The starry heavens have well been called “God’s oldest testament.” Psalm 19 is a great Hebrew hymn designed by the Holy Spirit to compare God’s testimony to Himself in the stars with His testimony to Himself in the Scriptures.
God bears witness to Himself With Him is no “variableness,” James says. The Greek word tells us that with God there is not the slightest variation – in contrast with the sun that seems, to the eye, to move across the heavens, rising in the east and setting in the west.
With God, furthermore, there is “neither shadow of turning.” The reference here might be to the sundial, one of the oldest instruments devised by man for keeping track of time. It marks the shadow cast by the sun on the dial as the sun proceeds upon its way. The reference might also be to the sun as it sets swiftly in a ball of flame behind the western horizon and casts lengthening shadows upon the earth as it sets.
God does not change; He casts no shadows. The wise man of old declared, “The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day” (Prow 4:18). Jesus said, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).
2. A gift that brings divine life (1:18)
James now gives us his version of the new birth. He sees it as being related to the will of God: “Of his own will begat he us”; to the Word of God: “with the word of truth”; and to the wisdom of God: “that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” The will of God takes us back to a dateless, timeless past when the members of the Godhead decided to act in creation. The Word of God is our current point of reference, the instrument of the Holy Spirit in revelation and regeneration (Heb. 1:1; 1 Peter 1:23). The wisdom of God embraces His future purpose in exhibiting us as “the firstfruits of his creatures.”
People have raised all kinds of difficulties regarding the sovereignty of God as related to the will of man. The Bible clearly teaches that God acts sovereignly and of His own volition in arranging for the regeneration of certain members of the human race. However, Peter balances that truth by reminding the redeemed that they are “elect according to the foreknowledge of God”(1 Peter 1:2). Paul says much the same thing (Rom. 8:29-30). We might never resolve the issues involved in the two great issues of divine sovereignty on the one side and human volition and accountability on the other. The fact is certain that the initiative in our salvation is God’s. The Lord Jesus is presented to us as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”(Rev. 13:8). Calvary was no afterthought with God. When the members of the Godhead decided to act in creation, they knew that the time would come when they would have to act in redemption. It was all foreknown, including God’s omniscient knowledge of who of Adam’s race would respond to the gospel.
The actual process of bringing the redemptive work of the cross home to our hearts is bound closely with “the word of truth.” The Word of God is the Holy Spirit’s instrument to bring us under conviction of sin, to open our eyes to the person and work of Christ, and to bring about the miracle of regeneration in a believing heart.
Doubtless, many reasons exist why God has brought various members of the human race into the sphere of redemption, reconciliation, and regeneration. James presents just one of them: the redeemed are to be “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” We are the first specimens, so to speak, of His new creation.
James was thoroughly familiar with the Old Testament annual Feast of Firstfruits (Lev. 23:10-14). It took place on “the morrow after the sabbath.” On the Sunday after the Passover, the Hebrews had to present a sheaf from the harvest field and wave it before the Lord. Plenty more grain was in the field, but the wave-sheaf was set apart especially for God. Even James, as devoted as he was to the Sabbath, must surely have seen the significance of the fact that the wave-sheaf was connected with the first day of the week, with the day on which Christ rose from the dead, and thus with the church itself. At some time between Passover and Pentecost, the risen Lord appeared to James. It might well have been on the resurrection day itself, the same day on which He appeared to backslidden Peter.
The church is the anti type of the Old Testament type of the Feast of Firstfruits. It occupies a unique place among the various companies of the redeemed. The Old Testament believers were redeemed; the 144,000 witnesses, who will witness for Christ during the Tribulation, will be redeemed; the countless multitude of those who will be won to Christ by the ministry of the 144,000 will be redeemed; and the people who will respond to the preaching of the apocalyptical angel (Rev. 14:6-7) will be numbered among the redeemed. But the church is unique, set apart from all other companies of the redeemed.
Perhaps James had caught a glimpse of this fact from David’s great Calvary psalm (Ps. 22). In the second half of the psalm, the Divine Sufferer looked forward to a day beyond the cross. “My praise shall be of thee,” He tells His father, “in the great congregation”(Ps. 22:25). God has many congregations. Indeed the psalmist has already mentioned one of them (Ps. 22:22). But He has a great congregation. David did not know anything about that congregation, but the Holy Spirit did. The great congregation is the church. It stands apart from all other congregations of God’s people in ages past and ages yet to be.’ James described it as “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”
It was left to the apostle Paul, however, to set before the church the significance of its unique place in the annals of eternity and its high and holy calling in the purposes of God. Note his word to the Ephesians: “That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him: in whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will: that we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ”(Eph. 1:10-12). He continues later in the epistle, “To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord”(Eph. 3:10-11).
Adapted from Exploring the Epistle of James: An Expository Commentary by John Phillips. Used by permission of Kregel Publications. The John Phillips Commentary Series from Kregel is available at your local or online Christian bookseller, or contact Kregel at (800) 733-2607.
John Phillips is a popular preacher and Bible study leader who now resides in Bowling Green, KY.