Chapter 49: “Pure Religion and Undefiled”

The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles, (1979), 406–13

Map Chp. 49

The Letter of James to Christians Living Across the Graeco-Roman World

Written by James, the Brother of the Lord, from Jerusalem, ca. A.D. 50–51 (James)



Trials Are a Privilege—Ask God for Wisdom


God Tempts No One to Do Wrong


“Be Ye Doers of the Word”


We Commit Sin If We Show Favoritism


The Entire Law Must Be Kept


“Faith Without Works Is Dead”


Controlled Language Aids Perfection


Envy and Strife Are of Evil


The Source of War and Strife


Identifying the Enemies of God


Becoming a Friend of God


What Is Sin?


A Warning for the Wealthy


Await the Lord’s Coming with Patience


Elders Anoint and Heal the Sick


Interpretive Commentary

(49-1) Theme

The letter of James does not have a Theme in the usual sense, as do the letters to the Romans or Ephesians or Galatians. It does not take one central idea and then develop and expound it in some systematic way. But this letter does have an overall purpose that could be thought of as a Theme. Throughout the epistle James seems to be showing that once we accept the gospel and have faith, it is expected that we will demonstrate the reality of that faith in our day-to-day living patterns. The book is characterized by a series of staccato mini-sermons showing that the saints are not only to know the word of God but are to live it as well.

(49-2) Place and Date of Writing

In the General Epistles (so-called because they had no specific location to which they were sent), of which James is one, the determination of date and place of writing is difficult. James, for example, gives no clue whatsoever as to the place from which he is writing. Many have assumed that it must have been Jerusalem, since that is where he resided, but it can only be supposition.

As to the date, we know from the historian Josephus that after many years of prominent church leadership in Jerusalem, James was taken before the Sanhedrin, sentenced to death, and executed by stoning in A.D. 62. (See Josephus, The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20. 9. 1.) That would, of course, mean that the letter was written before then. Though it cannot be stated with certainty, the tone of the letter (for example, no mention of the Jewish-gentile controversy) might suggest that it was written early in the church’s history, perhaps around A.D. 50 or 51. This fact, if true, would make it one of the earliest of the New Testament letters.

(49-3) Authorship

There is no question about the fact that this letter was written by someone named James. The problem lies in determining which James is referred to. Some assume that the author of the letter is the brother of John and the son of Zebedee, whom the Lord called to the apostleship early in his ministry (Matthew 10:12). He, together with Peter and John, formed the first presidency of the early church. This James, however, was the first apostolic martyr of the early church. He was “killed with the sword” (probably beheaded) by Herod in a wave of persecution against the church (Acts 12:1, 2). Most scholars fix the date of his execution at A.D. 44, five or six years before the great Jerusalem Council. With these facts considered, some scholars believe that the epistle of James was written by James, the Lord’s brother.

(49-4) Background Information

As was stated above, the epistle of James is a general letter. It was not sent to a specific branch or a group of branches of the church but seems to have been intended for all saints. This feeling of generality is heightened by the lack of personal references, personal greetings, or mention of any items of news that are so typical in the letters of Paul. The introduction is very brief, and there is no formal closing. But while this would seem to be a disadvantage on the surface, actually this lack of concrete application to either time or place gives the epistle a universality that has made it one of enduring value down through the centuries.

James addressed the letter to the “twelve tribes which are scattered abroad.” (James 1:1.) Many scholars, lacking a concept of spiritual Israel as contrasted with blood-descent Israel, assume that James wrote to Jewish Christians only. Elder McConkie, however, suggests that James wrote specifically to saints who would become part of Israel even far in the future.

“James—religious by nature; schooled in the strict Judaism of the day; converted after our Lord’s resurrection; and said to have died a martyr’s death—took upon himself the awesome responsibility to write an epistle to the saints in the dispensation of the fulness of times.

“Paul wrote to the saints of his own day, and if his doctrine and counsel blesses us of later years, so much the better. But James addressed himself to those of the twelve scattered tribes of Israel who belonged to the Church; that is, to a people yet to be gathered, yet to receive the gospel, yet to come into the fold of Christ; and if his words had import to the small cluster of saints of Judah and Benjamin who joined the Church in the meridian of time, so much the better.” (McConkie, DNTC, 3:243.)

(49-5) James 1:2. Are We to Be Joyful When We Have Many Temptations?

Joseph Smith made the following important change in this verse: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into many afflictions.” (James 1:2, Inspired Version.)

(49-6) James 1:5, 6. “If Any of You Lack Wisdom”

“… this single verse of scripture has had a greater impact and a more far reaching effect upon mankind than any other single sentence ever recorded by any prophet in any age. It might well be said that the crowning act of the ministry of James was not his martyrdom for the testimony of Jesus, but his recitation, as guided by the Holy Ghost, of these simple words which led to the opening of the heavens in modern times.

“And it might well be added that every investigator of revealed truth stands, at some time in the course of his search, in the place where Joseph Smith stood. He must turn to the Almighty and gain wisdom from God by revelation if he is to gain a place on that strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life.” (McConkie, DNTC, 3:246–47.)

(49-7) James 1:10. Why Should the Rich Rejoice in Being Made Low?

“‘Let wealthy saints who are stripped of their goods because of their allegiance to the gospel also rejoice, for worldly riches are fleeting and not to be compared with the riches of eternity. Or, let them rejoice when, through trials, they become lowly in spirit and no longer trust in those things which wither and die in the day’s heat.’” (McConkie, DNTC, 3:248.)

(49-8) James 1:14. The Way Satan Works

As James describes man being influenced by his own lusts, he chooses two words that are vivid and descriptive of how Satan works upon men. The first word, translated as drawn out, was used in hunting and was the word which described what the hunter did when he lured wild game out of the safety of the thick brush into an area set with snares. And the word entice came from fishing and meant “to bait, or to catch with bait.” How apt is the description, for the lusts of the flesh are designed to lure us out from the true safety of protective righteousness to become the victim of the evil hunter or fisherman.

(49-9) James 1:21. What Is a “Superfluity of Naughtiness”?

Naughtiness has come to connote petty or mischievous acts, such as the pranks of children; but this is a very inadequate translation of the word James used. Kakias not only meant evil in the general sense but, specifically, hatred or bitterness toward another. Thus malice probably comes closest to the truest meaning. The Greek word translated superfluity is used in many other places in the New Testament. Typically it is translated as abundance. This gives the true sense of James’ phrase, “an abundance of malice.”

(49-10) James 1:27. What Is Pure Religion?

“This may be interpreted as meaning that a person who is religious is thoughtful to the unfortunate, and has an inner spirit that prompts to deeds of kindness and to the leading of a blameless life; who is just, truthful; who does not, as Paul says, think more highly of himself than he ought to think; who is affectionate, patient in tribulation, diligent, cheerful, fervent in spirit, hospitable, merciful, and who abhors evil and cleaves to that which is good. The possession of such a spirit and feeling is a true sign that a person is naturally religious.

“The Church’s outward ordinances and requirements are but necessary—yet they are necessary—aids to the inner spiritual life. The Church itself, the organization, meetings, ordinances, requirements, are only helps, but very necessary helps, to the practice of true religion—schoolmasters to direct us in the way of eternal light and truth.” (Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p. 121.)

(49-11) James 2:25. Who Was Rahab?

Both James and Paul cite the harlot Rahab as an Old Testament example of true faith (Hebrews 11:31). She was an inhabitant of Jericho at the time the armies of Israel, under Joshua’s leadership, approached the Promised Land (Joshua 2:1–24). Joshua sent two men into Jericho to spy out the strength of the city. Rahab took them in, even hiding them when the king sought for them. Then she helped them to escape safely from the city. For that, she and her family were spared when the rest of Jericho was destroyed, and she dwelt in Israel for the remainder of her life. (See Joshua 6:22–25.) A Rahab is mentioned in the genealogy of the Savior. (See Matthew 1:5.) Since no other woman of that name is mentioned in the scriptures, most scholars assume it is the same woman.

(49-12) James 3:5. “How Great a Matter a Little Fire Kindleth”

The literal meaning of the word matter in this verse is “wood.” It is used as we would speak of a forest or a wooded area. The meaning of the passage is, “Behold, how great a forest fire a tiny spark can start.”

(49-13) James 3:8. The Importance of Taming the Tongue

“I think now of self-control. Many of the cases which I review started with uncontrolled appetites and tempers, leading often to cruelty, mental and physical. When in a temper the tongue may be venomous. The Apostle James said, ‘… it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.’ (James 3:8.) That is only potential, but it is often true. The tongue, with which we say our prayers and pledge our troth is sometimes used to wound those we love best. ‘Boys flying kites haul in their white winged birds; we can’t do that when we’re flying words.’

“A middle-aged couple on the farm had a violent quarrel at breakfast time. Later in the day they started for town in the buggy, with a fine team of horses to sell their vegetables and eggs. As the horses trotted along, Mary said, ‘John, why can’t we travel together like these horses do? They don’t quarrel and fight.’ John said, ‘Mary, we could if there was only one tongue between us.’

“Oh, the unkind things we say to those we love.
“‘We have kind words for the stranger
And smiles for the sometime guest,
While oft to our own
The bitter tone,
Though we love our own the best!’”

(Hugh B. Brown in CR, Oct. 1954, p. 16.)

(49-14) James 4:4. What Is a “Friend of the World”?

“The use of the word ‘world’ in this sense is defined in the scriptures when speaking of the ‘end of the world’ as the destruction of the wickedness that is in the world. (See [Joseph Smith—Matthew 1:4].)

“The world to which the apostles James and John and the Master make reference is that moral and spiritual system which is hostile to God and which seeks to delude us into thinking that we and mankind generally do not need God. It is a society which in every age has operated and is operating on wrong principles, from selfish desires, from improper motives, unworthy standards, and false values. Those who do not accept God’s revelation through his prophets have devised numerous philosophies from their limited human reasoning and seemingly think that they can find happiness and the satisfaction of their souls by ignoring God’s plan of salvation.” (Harold B. Lee in CR, Oct. 1968, p. 59.)

(49-15) James 4:7. How Do We Resist the Devil So That He Will Flee from Us?

“James gave a formula for conquering: ‘Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (Jas. 4:7.) In abandoning evil, transforming lives, changing personalities, molding characters or remolding them, we need the help of the Lord, and we may be assured of it if we do our part. The man who leans heavily upon his Lord becomes the master of self and can accomplish anything he sets out to do, whether it be to secure the brass plates, build a ship, overcome a habit, or conquer a deep-seated transgression.

“He who has greater strength than Lucifer, he who is our fortress and our strength, can sustain us in times of great temptation. While the Lord will never forcibly take anyone out of sin or out of the arms of the tempters, he exerts his Spirit to induce the sinner to do it with divine assistance. And the man who yields to the sweet influence and pleadings of the Spirit and does all in his power to stay in a repentant attitude is guaranteed protection, power, freedom and joy.” (Kimball, Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 176.)

(49-16) James 4:17. “To Him That Knoweth to Do Good, and Doeth It Not”

“Sin is the transgression of divine law, as made known through the conscience or by revelation. A man sins when he violates his conscience, going contrary to light and knowledge—not the light and knowledge that has come to his neighbor, but that which has come to himself. He sins when he does the opposite of what he knows to be right. Up to that point he only blunders. One may suffer painful consequences for only blundering, but he cannot commit sin unless he knows better than to do the thing in which the sin consists. One must have a conscience before he can violate it.” (Whitney, Saturday Night Thoughts, p. 239.)

(49-17) James 5:4. “The Lord of Sabaoth”

Often that phrase is read carelessly as the “Lord of the Sabbath.” This is incorrect, for the two words are actually unrelated in meaning. Sabaoth is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word tsabaoth, which means “host” or “multitude.” The title is the same as that used numerous times in the Old Testament, namely, the Lord of Hosts, meaning “the Lord of the multitudes who dwell in heaven and on earth.” It is interesting to note that the Savior so characterized himself in this dispensation also. (See D&C 87:7; 88:2; 95:7; 98:2.)

(49-18) James 5:16. Are We to Confess Our Sins to One Another?

“The confession of his major sins to a proper Church authority is one of those requirements made by the Lord. These sins include adultery, fornication, other sexual transgressions, and other sins of comparable seriousness. This procedure of confession assures proper controls and protection for the Church and its people and sets the feet of the transgressor on the path of true repentance.

“Many offenders in their shame and pride have satisfied their consciences, temporarily at least, with a few silent prayers to the Lord and rationalized that this was sufficient confession of their sins. ‘But I have confessed my sin to my Heavenly Father,’ they will insist, ‘and that is all that is necessary.’ This is not true where a major sin is involved. Then two sets of forgiveness are required to bring peace to the transgressor—one from the proper authorities of the Lord’s Church, and one from the Lord himself.

“When one has wronged another in deep transgression or in injuries of lesser magnitude, he, the aggressor, who gave the offense, regardless of the attitude of the other party, should immediately make amends by confessing to the injured one and doing all in his power to clear up the matter and again establish good feelings between the two parties.” (Kimball, Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 179, 186.)

(49-19) James 5:17. Elias or Elijah?

The name and title Elias is often confusing, since it can refer to an office, a function, or a person. (See McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, pp. 219–22.) It is further confused by the fact that the common Greek spelling for the name of the famous Old Testament prophet Elijah is also Elias. In this verse, James is obviously referring to Elijah, who had the power to stop the rains for 3½ years as a warning to Israel (1 Kings 17; 18).

(49-20) James 5:19, 20. The Saving Power of Missionary Work

“Every person who is beginning the long journey of emancipating himself from the thralldom of sin and evil will find comfort in the thought expressed by James. We could expand it somewhat and remind the transgressor that every testimony he bears, every prayer he offers, every sermon he preaches, every scripture he reads, every help he gives to stimulate and raise others—all these strengthen him and raise him to higher levels.

“The proper motivation for missionary work of any kind, as for all Church service, is of course love for fellowmen, but always such work has its by-product effect on one’s own life. Thus as we become instruments in God’s hands in changing the lives of others our own lives cannot help being lifted. One can hardly help another to the top of the hill without climbing there himself.” (Kimball, Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 205.)

Points to Ponder

James Identified Many Practical Aspects of Gospel Living

The young elders quorum president sat perplexed for a few moments, and then he began to describe to the bishop why he was concerned about Brother Miller: for the last three months he hadn’t completed his home teaching, and when he was asked to help on a welfare assignment he refused. The president explained that the problem was not apostasy, and that was why the matter was so perplexing. Brother Miller had told him he didn’t do the things he was asked to do because they took time from his studies. He said he had purchased some Church books and wanted to spend his time learning the gospel. Nothing could be more important than that. The young man looked at the bishop. “I’m not sure what to tell him, and I’m afraid his attitude is getting worse. Brother Miller told me he isn’t going to come to priesthood meeting any more because he knows more about the gospel than any of the members there.”

Does Brother Miller really know the gospel? If you were the bishop, what counsel would you give to the elders quorum president? Are there some things that you could point out in the epistle of James which might be helpful to Brother Miller? Consider each of the following readings as it might apply to this story.

(49-21) If You Lack Wisdom, Ask God in Faith (James 1:5–7)

It is significant that the Prophet Joseph followed the advice of James and received the great foundation of his testimony from God himself. He laid the book down and went to the source. You should have similar experiences in life in that you should go to God to receive the ultimate testimony and answers. It is well to accept the testimony of others—parents, teachers, friends, and even prophets—but it is your privilege to know for yourself. Then your witness will be based on the solid rock of personal revelation, and this is the great strength of the Church.

“… perhaps the most important reason of all for the growth of the Church is the individual testimonies of the divinity of this work, as would be multiplied in the hearts of the individual members of the Church. … in the hearts of faithful members of the Church is the conviction that this is indeed the church and kingdom of God on the earth.” (Harold B. Lee in CR, Apr. 1973, p. 9.)

(49-22) “A Double Minded Man Is Unstable in All His Ways” (James 1:8)

There are many in the Church who have not yet made a full commitment to the Lord and his church. They seek to be in the world and of the world and also in the Church. Such a course is unwise. “Choose you this day” are the words of Joshua. (Joshua 24:15.) Jesus said, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24.) There comes a time when we must count the cost of discipleship; the cost is full dedication and consecration, and there is no other way. If, with the major decisions of life, we constantly waver between alternatives and make and unmake decisions only according to the expediency of the moment, our lives will be rocked with compromise and we will be unstable in all our ways.

(49-23) Individual Lust Is the Source of Temptation (James 1:13–15)

In these modern times many evade responsibility for their own actions and blame heredity, society, or the devil for their problems. As significant as these factors are, James identifies the root cause of sin as individual lust or unhealthy, intense desire for that which is unlawful. Nothing is a temptation unless there is a desire for it. It is not that our desires are necessarily evil in and of themselves, but it is our responsibility to bridle our own passions lest they devolve to lusts which will invariably lead to sin (Alma 38:12). Thus we exercise our agency and must accept the responsibility if our decisions lead to sin.

(49-24) Show Not Partiality in Unrighteousness (James 2:4)

From time immemorial men have shown partiality in unrighteousness. The only aristocracy that counts with the Lord is that of righteousness. He who does His will is favored of God (1 Nephi 17:35). Men often have much less lofty reasons for their partiality. If you show partiality for any of the following reasons, you need to examine your life (read the scriptures for elucidation):

These are only a few of the unworthy things men show partiality for. Can you think of others?

(49-25) The Sin of Levity (James 4:9)

The Saints have been informed to “let the solemnities of eternity rest upon your minds.” (D&C 43:34.) The Prophet Joseph stated that levity is inconsistent to those called of God (Joseph Smith—History 1:28). This should not be interpreted to mean that there is no place for amusement or laughter, for Brigham Young said that “the people must have amusement as well as religion,” and that “every pure enjoyment was from heaven and was for the Saints.” (Clarissa Young Spencer, Brigham Young at Home, pp. 148–49.) But uncontrolled loud laughter or excessive frivolity are offensive to God (D&C 88:69).

(49-26) Be Doers of the Word, Not Hearers Only (James 1:22)

Some of the Savior’s most severe denunciations were aimed at hypocrites—those who profess but do not. As members of the Lord’s true church our professions are lofty. We are “called to be saints.” (Romans 1:7.) We should be the light of the world—a city set on a hill so that men will see our good works and glorify God (Matthew 5:14, 16). Sometimes the opposite is the case: we are recognized by what we don’t do rather than by what we do. The revelations indicate that the Saints will become such a positive force for good that those in the world will be constrained to acknowledge the power of God in us (D&C 105:32). This can come only as we do as we hear. “Not every one that saith unto me Lord, Lord shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21.)

What would you say is Brother Miller’s problem? How do you think God would feel toward an individual who spent all his time studying the gospel and no time loving his fellowman? You may wish to consider what the Savior taught in 2 Nephi 31:14 concerning those who know much but do not apply it in lifting others. Do you see that study is important provided the objective is to apply the information in your own life and also use it in your service of others?

Consider Lucifer. He knows the scriptures and is probably an excellent theologian in that sense. But he is still the devil because of what he does. Therefore, it is in what you do that you become either devilish or Christlike. As you choose to do what the Savior did you become like him, and that means ultimately you will become perfect. Therefore, following the teachings of James is the practical road to perfection.

The Teachings of James May Be Paralleled with the Sermon on the Mount as a Pattern for Perfection

Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written that James set forth “the practical operation of the doctrines taught by his Elder Brother [Jesus Christ].” (DNTC, 3:243.) Celestial living is practical for the reborn Saint because the gospel of Christ is “the power of God unto salvation.” (Romans 1:16.) The disciple is, indeed, through the grace of the Savior and his own will, “thoroughly furnished unto all good works” that the “man of God may be perfect.” (2 Timothy 3:17.)

“The Lord said, ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ (Matt. 5:48.) This terse sentence epitomizes all that Jesus taught about the mission and life and destiny of man. It seems on its face a hard saying, and many have felt that it sets a task beyond all possibility of accomplishing, and there is no use trying; that it projects an ideal so utterly unrealistic as to make it of little value. There might be some validity to this objection, if life is to be thought of only in terms of mortal probation. To get full value of the admonition we need a broader understanding of the work of life.

“President Brigham Young let some light in on that in one of his sermons. After quoting the saying, he remarked: ‘If the … passage I have quoted is not worded to our understanding, we can alter the phraseology of the sentence, and say: “Be ye perfect as ye can,” for that is all we can do.

“‘When we are doing as well as we know how in the sphere and station which we occupy here, we are justified in the justice, righteousness, mercy, and judgment that go before the Lord of heaven and earth. We are as justified as the angels who go before the throne of God. The sin that will cleave to all the posterity of Adam and Eve is that they have not done as well as they know how.’ (JD, 21:129.)

“That puts the admonition to be perfect on a practical working basis. It is within the range of the possibility of attainment. …

“This interpretation introduces the principle that it is not intended that we shall accomplish everything in this life, but that we are expected to be progressive beings, growing toward our final destiny. But that principle in no way excuses us from doing the best we can or from acquiring all the knowledge that we have capacity and opportunity to assimilate as we go along.” (Albert E. Bowen in CR, Apr. 1951, pp. 122–23.)

In his exposition of “pure religion and undefiled” James establishes a pattern for perfection remarkably similar to that given by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount; in fact, it is so similar that one wonders if he may have been present when the Savior gave it.