How to Interpret Temptation and James 1

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This series is inspired (but not sponsored) by FBC (First Baptist Church of Davis) and their fall focus running from October 4, 2015 through November 28, 2015. When I first heard FBC was doing this series, the lectionary reading and sermon that day at my own church, Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church, was from the book of James, and it really spoke to me; James is also the first bible study I completed on my own: I was fourteen, and I wrote with colored markers in a spiral notebook each morning before school, using an observation-reflection-action method similar to the one outlined in FBC’s bible-study guide. I am looking forward to spending more time meditating on this challenging book of the New Testament. I will be using the bible study guide provided by FBC with the accompanying scripture throughout this series; however, my methodology might hop around from anecdotal to more analytical word study. My goal is to do this study daily, or at least a few times a week! A big thanks to FBC for their theme, chosen scriptures, and structure of this study.


James, a fall bible study

Week 2
Monday – [FBC has James 1:12-18]
Tuesday –  [FBC has Genesis 3]
Wednesday – [FBC has Matthew 4]
Thursday – James 1:12-18 [FBC has Galatians 5]
Friday – [FBC has Psalm 63]
Saturday – James 1:19-27

My apologies – I have not followed FBC’s outline very closely this week. You might notice that I am adding extra verses. The Fall Focus at FBC had to cut out some sections of James, which works for their timing, but I absolutely love those passages and am including them. 

Wednesday – James 1:12-18

12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

 



A Word Study/Commentary on James 1:12-18

James 1:12 The word πειρασμός (peirasmos)  translated as “trials” or “trial” in James 1:2 and James 1:12 by the ESV, NIV, and NASB  also means “temptation.” It is the same word used to describe Jesus’s fast for forty days in the wilderness, and it is what Jesus told the disciples to pray when we read “lead us not into temptation.” 1 Since the latter half of James 1 with its talk about desire conceiving sin and bringing forth death, the entire chapter could have used “temptation,” but translations such as ESV, NIV, and even the literal NASB all use “trial” for the first twelve verses and then switch to being “tempted” rather than “tried.” Why?

To answer that question I looked at other occurrences in the New Testament that seem to use πειρασμός (peirasmos) as “trial”, and I looked at teaching similar to James yet using a different term to indicate suffering. I found that Paul has an almost identical teaching in Romans with different words to indicate suffering, and  Peter uses the same word, πειρασμός (peirasmos), three times:

1 Peter 1:6In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” 

1 Peter 4:12-16Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”

2 Peter 2:7-9and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment…”

Peter seems to use πειρασμός (peirasmos) to mean “trial” rather than “temptation.” The trials we should rejoice in are the result of religious persecution; the trials/suffering we should not have would come after temptation and sin. Lot was rescued from a city about to be destroyed. He was rescued from a trial. You could argue that he was also escaping from temptation by leaving the environment where same sex relations were common, but Peter seems to think Lot was not tempted by the environment and was instead quite distressed about the wayward ways of his town. Although the context of James is not conclusive, Peter uses the same term, πειρασμός (peirasmos), and his context suggests he means suffering.

Paul’s teaching about suffering closely parallels what James and Peter teach about persevering in the faith.

Romans 5:3-5 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Looking at these other occurrences of both word usage and theme indicates that “trials” is a good translation for James 1:2 and James 1:12, but it does not entirely resolve the issue of why James would first talk about “trials/temptations,” when he could have used another word for suffering, and then talk about being “tested/tempted” in James 1:13 as if there was a logical connection between these two ideas.

I suspect, and the Liddell-Scott lexicon concurs, that πειρασμός (peirasmos meaning trial or temptation) is analogous to that sound in Korean between l and r. You probably do not know Korean  – my Korean currently exists of one phrase and the word for water that I learned in college for a linguistics project. I am proud that my roommate’s parents thought I was Korean as I used my one phrase, “Hello! She is not here right now,” but the word I worked hardest to say was water (mul). Transliterations usually have mul end in l, but the sound is open and closer to a r. Try it out now from my description or google it. It sounds muffled, not directly corresponding to my idea of what the letter l is. My college roommate was quite patient with me to help me learn that new sound that did not match my categories of letters.

Forgive me for the extended metaphor, but just as there are categories of sounds in other languages that we do not have (we might have the sound and just not label it, or sometimes the sound is missing entirely), there are also words in other languages that convey nuances different than we assume. In the lexicon by Liddell and Scott, πειρασμός is given one short line: “trial, temptation.” 2 Rather than alternate meanings (i.e. 1.trial, 2. temptation), they are interrelated terms. 3  I think that πειρασμός, which is translated as “trial” in James, has a connotation of suffering that sometimes becomes a tempting circumstance, and this interrelated meaning of trial and temptation is not immediately apparent to our ears if it were simply translated “temptation.” Instead, it seems to be temptation that usually comes from experiencing suffering.

If my interpretation that πειρασμός means a trial that tends to lead to temptation and sin, then it affects how we pray the Lord’s prayer and how we see Jesus’s time in the wilderness (and the Israel’s time). Jesus was under a trial because he was led to not eat or drink, and he was away from friends and family in the wilderness. In the context of his suffering, he encountered temptation, yet he did not sin. When we pray as Jesus taught us, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” we are praying to not be put into trying, difficult circumstances where we might be tempted to sin.

πειρασμός (peirasmos) 4 ESV
Mat 6:13
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Mat 26:41
Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Mar 14:38
Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Luk 4:13
And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Luk 8:13
And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.
Luk 11:4
And lead us not into temptation.
Luk 22:28
You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, 29 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom,
Luk 22:40
And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
Luk 22:46
and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
Act 20:19
serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews;
1Co 10:13
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man…
1Co 10:13
…God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Gal 4:14
and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.
1Ti 6:9
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
Heb 3:8
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness,
Jas 1:2
 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial…
Jas 1:12
…for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
1Pe 1:6
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials,
1Pe 4:12
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.
2Pe 2:9
then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment,
Rev 3:10
Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.

Ok, all of that to simply say that I think that James is using a word that frequently contains a dual meaning of temptation and trial, so when James is talking first about rejoicing and persevering in trials, it is logical for him to address the question of whether or not God is using the trial to test him with a temptation. 

James 1:13 I appreciate the clarification that God does not tempt us – I never thought he came to my door with a poisoned apple, but when things are rough, you wonder if God is testing you. The word translated as “tempted/tempting” in James 1:13, πειράζω (peirazō), means “try, make a trial of, put to the test, to discover what kind of a pers[son] someone is.” 5 Continuing in this idea of trials becoming potential temptations and time to prove one’s faith, James asserts that God is not trying to tempt us and that God gives good gifts.

James 1:14-15a The description of the process of making choices contrary to God’s nature, aka sin, is enlightening: Sin is distinct from the desire to sin, but the road is so slippery from desire to action that we might conclude that it is best to flee temptation; however, sometimes a trial is inescapable. Jesus is the only one who experienced trials and came out without sinning.

James 1:15b “Sin gives birth to death.” What I love about this succinct phrase is that God is not the enforcer of arbitrary rules with corresponding punishments. Death is separation from the life of God, who is life itself. If we are “sinning,” we are not in sync with God’s character and being. It’s like saying if you do not drink water, your body will die.

The  baby metaphor is a bit weird. So, you have desire, and you conceive a baby called sin. While babies are rather innocuous, they grow up into adults who can be awful, especially when named Death. Kind of weird – because a child is distinct from its parent, yet I have always thought of sin and death as an innate part of who we are prior to transformation by Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This metaphor presents you being responsible for a gigantic death-baby rather than God; however, you are not the death-baby. God sees his art in us despite our bad choices and consequences. (But really, your child kills you.)

James 1:16-17 I also appreciate the reminder that God’s gifts are good and perfect. I recall Jesus telling us to ask for gifts. The best gift Jesus could think of was the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus said we could have if we ask.

James 1:18 Even more weird: the baby metaphor is back (at least in the NIV): “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” Even though only the NIV highlights the birth motif, for once it is the most accurate in its translation of ἀποκυέω, which means to “bear young.” 6 Now, instead of us giving birth to death, God gives birth to us. He gives us new life.

Epilogue

Saturday afternoon I walked by a house decorated with hanging corpses and gruesome looking ghouls for Halloween, and to be honest, it delighted me. Do you know why? Even if I think that the spirits of dead humans do not roam the earth and instead are kept in heaven above or some place below, it reminded me that we die but that we have spirits that endure. I looked down and saw, yes, we are spiritual beings and, yes, devils roam this world. And then I look up, and I see that, yes, God is present and, yes, is preparing an eternal home for me. Verse twelve speaks of the good and perfect gift of the crown of life. I need to turn my eyes toward that crown. It is so easy to slip into the mode of thinking that spiritual realities do not exist and that this material world is all there is – all the while “believing in God” but treating this life as if that’s all there is, folks. This life is just the womb, and the crown of life is beyond death. (Ew, that was an unintentional birthing pun.)

 

 

 

 

Notes:

  1. Bible GT (great treasures) http://greattreasures.org/gnt/main.do
  2. Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon from the 7th ed. of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press), s.v. “πειρασμός.
  3. I should not neglect Bauer, Gingrich, and Dankers’s lexical entry, which does enumerate the terms of trial and temptation into three separate meanings: (1) test, trial; (2) temptation, enticement to sin; and (3) testing. BGD cites the same verses as I did for temptation and for trials; however, the context of James 1 suggests BGD is too quick to separate terms.
  4. The following list is from Great Treasures, http://greattreasures.org/gnt/main.do
  5. Water Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed., trans., ed., aug. by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, from Bauer’s from 5th ed (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), s.v. “πειράζω.”
  6. Great Treasures, http://greattreasures.org/gnt/main.do

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