Book Review: James (EEC), William Varner


Besides being one of the administrators to a number of “nerdy” Facebook groups (I should add that they are wonderful groups which have helpful discussions on biblical languages and theology), William Varner is a Professor of Bible & Greek at The Master’s College and Seminary (where John MacArthur serves as President).

In the EEC series, “Each of the authors affirms historic, orthodox Christianity and the inspiration and inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures” (xi). The EEC series is also the first series to be produced in electronic form. Besides being linked up with your other Logos resources, the benefit with this is that the authors can add and change their insights when they gain new insights (even 20 years from now). 

Though highly neglected for much of church history, the “last forty years . . . have witnessed both James and the writing attributed to him emerging into the brightness of a new day for Jacobean scholarship” (1). There have been at least thirty major commentaries since the 1970s. Why do we need another commentary on such a small letter? To quote Varner, “I can only say that there will always be a need for good commentaries on a biblical text, because ‘God yet has light to spring forth from His word,’” and “the application of fresh linguistic methods to exegetical analysis demands an occasional fresh look at familiar biblical passages” (1, fn 4).

Varner believes James to have been both the brother of Jesus and the leader of the church, the Jerusalem church and of the entire Jesus movement. The letter was written in Jerusalem in the mid-to-late 40s AD for Jewish-Christian congregations “in or around Syria” (18). Some of James’ main themes are God, the Messiah, the Holy Spirit, faith, wisdom, and eschatology. Both a kingdom and a judgment are waiting for us in the future, but also a part of that future kingdom is here now. We have the King’s “royal law” (2.8) now, and we experience the “new birth” (1.18) now too.


The layout of the series works pretty much the same for all volumes (for more detail, check out my review on the Ephesians volume). Generally, each section is separated into 9 different sections.

  1. Introduction
  2. Outline
  3. Original Text
  4. Textual Notes
  5. Translation
  6. Commentary
  7. Biblical Theology Comments
  8. Application and Devotional Implications
  9. Selected Bibliography

There are also 3 excursuses at the end of the commentary.

  1. Scot McKnight’s Treatment of James 2.18
  2. James 3.1-12: Can the Tongue Really Be Controlled?
  3. Wisdom in James


Sometimes when I review a commentary, knowing that a commentary can’t do everything, I try to suggest at least one other commentary to pair the reviewed copy with. I’m not really sure who I should suggest here. Moo’s PNTC volume is a wise choice, and Blomberg’s ZECNT volume will likely have great practical points. But when I really compared them to Varner, I found Varner to have more clarity and better application.

And really, the biggest difference was something small, simple, and often overlooked in a commentary: his outline. It’s not just the outline itself that is impressive, but his argument for it. Varner believes that 3.13-18 is the “thematic peak” of James (where it brings all of the themes together), and 4.1-10 is the “hortatory peak,” a section filled with exhortations, commands, loving rebuke, and encouragement to James’ readers to cut off their friendship with the world, to stop their selfish bickering, and to humble themselves before the majestic King of glory.

Martin Luther accused James of borrowing “a few ideas from the apostles” and then afterwards he “‘threw them on paper.’ Luther thought that the organization of the book was as bad as its doctrine” (62). Many others have found James’ structure to be equally elusive. Varner shows that the leader of the Church did know what he was talking about, and it sets this commentary apart from the rest as Varner guides through the commentary, showing us the word-signs that point backwards and forwards to reveal and to herald what has been and what is to come.

Varner’s commentary is technical, but in the Grammarian Desert you will also find equally refreshing pools of theology, theology that is biblically practical. He follows the flow of James’ river of wisdom and smoothes out gnarled passages (e.g., James 4.5). This should be on your shelf. Better yet, this should be open on your desk.


  • Author: William Varner
  • Series: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary
  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Lexham Press (April 9, 2014)

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[Special thanks to Lexham Press for allowing me to review this book! I was not obligated to provide a positive review in exchange for this book].

What Does James 4.5 Really Say?

If you were to flip through different Bible translations and read James 4.5, you would be hard-pressed to find any that agreed with each other.

  • Does God threaten to withdraw the Holy Spirit when Christians try to be friends with the anti-God-world (NASB)?
  • Or does the Holy Spirit desire to serve God when Christians try to be friends with the world (NKJV, HCSB)?
  • Maybe the Father himself is jealous over the adulterous people who have gone astray in Jam 4.4 (The Message)?
  • Or maybe God yearns for the human spirit, and he desires that that we follow him (ESV, NIV, NLT)?
  • Or . . . maybe . . . our own spirit jealously desires the world (Jam 4.4) instead of God (Lexham English Bible, Amplified Bible)?

If you’re like me, you’re already confused.

How do we make sense of James 4.5 when very few Bible translations agree with each other? Is it really that difficult to know what James is saying? Apparently, yes, it is.

Five Questions

In his rewarding commentary on James, William Varner presents 6 questions that comes up when reading James 4:5. A few of them are below*:

  1. How should the phrase “for envy” be taken? Can God ever be said to do anything “enviously”?
  2. Is the “yearning” seen positively or is it a sinful lusting?
  3. Is the “spirit” God’s Spirit or the human spirit (and is it viewed neutrally or negatively)?
  4. Did the original read either “he dwelt” or “he caused to dwell”? (420)
  5. A fifth question would be, “Where does Scripture say this? Is James quoting a specific text, or is he speaking generally?”

* I’ve taken the Greek text out for easier reading.

What is Going On Here?

In James 4.4, James rebukes his readers who have followed the wisdom of the world and who have preferred friendship with the world over friendship with and loyalty to God.

Then James brings up the Scripture which speaks to us all, and the spirit which God created in us. Varner believes that James asks two rhetorical questions. Varner says, “Such questions are not meant to search for an answer but to function as a more powerful statement” (418).

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Varner translates the James 4.5a as saying, “Or do you suppose that the Scripture speaks to no purpose?”

He states,

if we remove from our thinking that this is a citation from Scripture, canonical or not, and read it as a question that expects a negative answer, the answer to the question would be as follows: “No, the spirit which God has caused to dwell in us . . . does not long enviously.” In other words, God did not create man this way, i.e., with a spirit that longs enviously. This is because God is the source of only good (1:13–18). (421-422)

Of course the Scripture doesn’t speak in vain. Our good God didn’t create man with a spirit that jealously desires to be better than everyone. In fact, James 4.6 tells us what God does give, “But He gives more grace.”

We must not forget what James has told us about God earlier. God tempts no one, but we are all tempted by our own desires.

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (Jam 1.5).

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” (Jam 1.17).

“God is not only associated with light rather than darkness, with stability and consistency rather than with change and alteration, but (as in 1:5) with the giving of every good and perfect gift, rather than with the attitude of grasping that is characteristic of [“desire”]” (176).

So while James’ readers (which includes us) desire, covet, quarrel, and fight amongst each other, all they (and we) have to do is ask. We can come to God and ask for what is good and right. But there’s a problem. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (Jam 4.3). So if I can’t go to God and get what I want, why should I ask at all?

What the “Scripture” Does Say

James’ flow of thought from 4.5-6 could be explained like this:

“Does the spirit that He has caused to dwell in us long enviously?”


Then be humble! God gives more grace. He gives you a chance to submit to him.

“God opposes proud people, but gives grace to humble ones” (Prov 3.34).


Here we have the Prouds facing off against the Humbles. If this were a football game you could already bet on the winner: the Prouds. They’re strong, they’re fast, they’re confident, and they’re not afraid to show it.

But there’s a catch here. James tells us this game is fixed. The Prouds can’t win. They won’t win because “God opposes” them. Their wisdom does not come “from above.” Instead it “is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (3.15). But God does give grace to the Humbles.

In fact, the Prouds will most likely destroy themselves. “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (3.16). They desire and do not have, so they murder (4.2a). What they do receive, they spend it wrongly. They spend all that they have on their passions (4.3), which give birth to sin, and when full grown, death (1.14-15).

The main message announces that “arrogant and proud people do not acknowledge their dependence on God but choose to live according to the order of the world and as enemies of God. By contrast, God gives grace to lowly people . . . who are acknowledging their dependence on God” (424).


Varner translates James 4.4-6 (below), and I’ve added some of what we talked about above and other parts of James’ to hopefully show more of James’ meaning.

James 4.4-6

You adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world means enmity with God?

Do you want to be friends with the world which will pass away (1.10), which brings death (1.15), and which when it tries to do something good, its religion is useless (1.26)? Do you want to be opposed to the God who gives every good and perfect gift (1.17)?

Therefore whoever decides to be the world’s friend becomes God’s enemy.

Q: Or do you suppose that the Scripture speaks to no purpose?

A: No.

Does the spirit that He has caused to dwell in us long enviously?

A: No, God did not create us to jealously desire for other things. To yearn over and fight with people. He created us to know him, and to humbly serve and honor him as our Father who gave us life (1.18).

But He gives more grace.

God gives more grace. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands of your sin and purify your hearts. Follow God alone (4.8). Confess your sins to him and to each other (5.16).

Therefore it says, “God opposes proud people, but gives grace to humble ones.”

If you are reading this letter, you still have a chance to submit to God. Know that you live in the last days (5.3), and that the best earthly treasures are corroded and molded in the sight of God (5.2), the Judge (4.11-12). Instead, seek wisdom from God on how to live. Be pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere. Make peace, and reap peace.

Varner says, “God’s people are indwelled by a spirit from God and there is no way in which that living presence is compatible with promptings of self-interest that are destructive of peace among the brothers” (426).

We the Church have been chosen (Eph 1.4) and adopted (1.5) as sons and heirs to the Father above. We were dead in our sins (2.1), we followed the course of this world (2.2), and we deserved God’s wrath (2.3). Now we are alive in Christ (2.5), created to walk in good works which God already prepared for us (2.10) who are citizens of God’s household (2.19). We are a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (2.22). Christ won the victory, and he gives gifts to his people (4.8). In the end, we will, together, all see God’s face, and his name will be on all of our foreheads (Rev 22.4).

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James: Brother of Jesus, Leader of the Church


Who are the major players in Acts? Peter takes up the first 12 chapters, and, including chapter 9, Saul/Paul fills in the rest of the chapters from Acts 13 to the end. Who led the church, the Jesus movement, this new people in Christ? In his commentary on James, William Varner suggests that James, the brother of Jesus, didn’t play as small of a role in the church as we often think he did.

Varner, backed with evidence from Martin Hengel and Richard Bauckham, claims,

A careful reading of Luke’s account in Acts and Paul’s comments in Galatians fully supports the idea that James was not merely a significant leader in the early church and not just the leader of the Jerusalem church, but that he was the leader of the church. The implications of this fact are significant not only for the Roman Catholic attitude toward Peter, but also for the Protestant evangelical attitude toward Paul. (8)

James the Brother of Jesus

As the argument goes, after Pentecost James quickly rose to the position of the leader of the both the Jerusalem church and of the entire Jesus movement.

In 1 Cor 15.7, the Apostle Paul tell us that James, one of Jesus’ family members who would have thought Jesus was “beside himself” (a.k.a., crazy, Mk 3.21), received a special revelation from his resurrected brother. After appearing to Peter, the Twelve, and 500 brothers at one time, Jesus then “appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” This would have been extremely startling to the once skeptical brother. Yet he does believe. We see him waiting for the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Acts 1.14, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (Gal 1.18-19). “Paul mentions that during his first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion he saw only two of the “apostles”: Peter and James . . . From his statement about James in 1 Corinthians 15:7 and Galatians 1:19, it appears that Paul at least classed James along with the apostles” (8-9).

The Big Three

Varner points out the significance of James’ role in some of the early church’s big decisions.

In Galatians 2.1-10, Paul and Barnabbas visit James, Cephas, and John who, as Schreiner explains, “recognized the validity of the gospel proclaimed by Paul” (130).

And when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised (Gal 2.9).

Varner says, “The order of these “pillars” should not be overlooked. James was first in order and his primacy is illustrated in Peter’s attitude toward James from at least this point onward” (9). The pillars remind Paul to “remember the poor”, and “Paul did what James requested that he do” (9).

Again, in Acts 12.17, Peter gives place to the authority of James, But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he [Peter] described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, ‘Tell these things to James and to the brothers.’”

Acts 15

When it comes to the Apostolic Council in Acts 15, Varner says that it was this situation, dealing with whether the Church should require the circumcision of Gentiles, that “make[s] it obvious that James had by then risen to be the leader of the church . . . The text is clear that James rendered the final decision as the moderator of the church council, to which the apostles and brethren agreed as also being the guidance of the Holy Spirit!” (9).

Peter explains his experience in Joppa, one which caused him to think, “If then God gave the same gift [the promised Holy Spirit] to them [Gentiles] as he gave to us [Jews] when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11.17).

Varner says, “When James presents his opinion . . . he does not base his argument on experience but on how the prophets had affirmed this future Gentile conversion with citations from Amos 9:11–12 and Isaiah 45:21”.


Some Bible versions translate Acts 15.19 as having James say, “Therefore I conclude” or “Therefore in my judgment.” Yet Varner says that there is no reason to blunt the force of James’ words. Any Greek reader can read that James said, “Therefore, I decide.” Nobody voted on James’ “opinion.” James made the final decision, it stood firmly on the Scriptures, and everyone agreed with it (10). Although James is the leader, he is “serving as the ‘first among equals’” (10).

Obedience to James

Varner points out two more times where Paul obeyed James. First, after adding that Gentiles should not perform certain practices (Acts 15.29), Luke tells us that Paul “delivered to [the Gentiles] for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.

Secondly, Paul does what James asks him to do which was to pay the expenses of four Jewish men who were under a vow. This may have been some of the offering from the Collection (which had the purpose of showing the Gentiles’ appreciation for the Jerusalem mother church by helping them with funds). As we can see, “[f]or at least the third time, Paul did what James requested that he do” (11).

The Outsiders

Is James mentioned by anyone outside of the New Testament? Varner shows that the Jewish historian Josephus “vividly described” the “martyr death of James” which occurred in 62 AD (11). And “apart from a statement about ‘the tribe of Christians’ in the controversial Testimonium Flavianum (‘Flavian Testimony’) about Jesus, the only early Christian that Josephus mentions is James!” (11-12)

Varner mentions that statements about James’ priority were made by Clement of Alexandria, Hesychius of Jerusalem, and even The Gospel of Thomas (which, though not an authentic Gospel, may give credence to sayings about James’ role).



To quote Varner again, “If James was the leader of the early church, there are some serious implications of this fact both for Roman Catholicism and also for Protestant evangelicalism. In other words, Peter was not the original primate of the church. He was in his place under James, and he even yielded to his leadership” (13).

As much as I would prefer to quote the entire two paragraphs, I’ll refrain from doing so. But I also can’t forget about the other side, Protestant evangelicalism. James gave he church one canonical letter. Paul, thirteen. Varner doesn’t seek to tear Paul down, but “to portray Paul and his role as it is actually indicated in the NT and also by his own words. We should not miss the fact that Paul himself told us something about his role when he called himself “the least of the apostles” (1 Cor 15:9)” (13).

Paul is particularly important to the church as he was the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom 11.13). But he was not the leader of the church, nor did he ever claim to be. From this evidence, it would seem that it was James, not Paul or Peter, who was the leader of the Church. My one question would be how this view lines up with what Jesus said to Peter in Matt 16.18-19, And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Peter would not be “the Pope,” but there is something going on here, a wordplay. One that will have to wait until later to venture into.

So, if nothing else, maybe this can give us a better perspective of James, the brother of Jesus, the leader of the church. Perhaps we’ll think deeper the next time we want to put too much emphasis on another apostle who was not deemed the “leader” of the Church in the first century AD, and when we don’t put enough emphasis on James who was the leader. 

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