It is generally assumed that James wrote his letter to Jewish Christians outside Palestine who were facing troubles of different kinds for their faith. What advice does he give to them?
First, James urges them to rejoice (or boast) in their difficult circumstances. Obviously, when Christians suffer in times of persecution, some will lose more than others – maybe some will not have very much to lose whereas others may be forced to lose a large amount. Why should they rejoice? Because they were called by God to suffer for the sake of Jesus.
Second, he reminds them that life is short for everyone. Each person is like the short-lived flower of the grass. We don’t need a great mind to appreciate that this is true, but I think we need a renewed mind to take it seriously because it runs contrary to what the world thinks. Some of James’ readers had seen their assets fade away, but he insists it is worse for those who fade away themselves without hope.
Third, he writes, ‘Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial.’ The word translated ‘steadfast’ is also translated as ‘endures’. It requires determination and it also points to an awareness of priorities, because one thing that is certain is that we will always stick to our priorities. If my priority is to do everything to avoid trouble, then I will do everything to avoid trouble. But if my priority is to please God, then I will judge everything by that priority.
Here, in James, some wealthy believers were facing a test connected to their possessions. It was not easy for them, and they therefore needed to be steadfast. But why should they be steadfast?
The answer is the prospect of reward. James directs his readers to look away from the uncertainties of this life to the certainties connected to the next life. The reward is described as ‘the crown of life’. There has been some discussion about whether James has in mind the situation in which a monarch is crowned or whether he describes the victory ceremony after an athlete has won a race. While the latter illustration does include perseverance within it, it also suggests that the reward is not as fulsome as the other possibility, which is that James is indicating that faithful followers of Jesus will reign with him. Perhaps James has both in mind, and each would be true. The reality is that this reward is worth waiting for! And it will be a great recompense!