Having presented the reality of temptation, the root of temptation, and the results of temptation, James exhorts his brethren further: be not deceived or lead astray. About what, James? About the sin! And about the origin of sin and temptation. In other words, do not believe the lie. This is serious business and to attribute temptation to God is a gross error! God is far from the one who entices to sin. And so verse 16 acts as a type of transitional sentence to move into the next section, especially about the nature of the good God Christians serve. “Far from enticing to evil, God is the source of every good gift (v.17), one of the greatest of which is the new birth (v.18)” (Moo 74).
James 1.16-18 (ESV)
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.
You will note that James addresses his readers as “my beloved brethren” (v.16). As mentioned in the introductory material, it is maintained that the James who wrote the epistle of James was the half-brother of Jesus. He was converted when he had a post-resurrection appearance from Jesus (see 1 Cor 15.7). Following his conversion, he became a leader in the Jerusalem church of Christ (Acts 15.13-21). In fact, because of the close similarities in language between the letter sent forth from the Jerusalem council and the epistle of James, in all likelihood the author of each of these is one and the same. Further, according to tradition, this same James went on to become one of the bishops (elders) of the Jerusalem church. This language used here in James 1.16 indicates that James had a shepherds heart with a deep concern and care for the flock of God. He loved them and desired for them to have a proper understanding about the true nature of God. So what is God like?
God is good
If God were not good, then there could be no good giving which is what the Greek indicates “good gift” means. Two different words are used for the same English word (“gift”) – dosis and dorema. The former is used with the adjective “good” to describe the act of giving which God engages in. Everything God gives is good or beautiful. Hence, there is no evil or bad in it. By the way, even in situations that we classify as “bad,” if they are given by God, they are good for man does not dictate and define what is good; God does.
God is perfect
Next, the gifts (Gk. dorema) from God are perfect. If God were not perfect there could be no perfect gifts. James has already used this same word (v.4) to describe a Christian who is steadfast in trials: they come out “perfect” when perseverance runs its course. As mentioned there, more than maturity is meant with this word and that is especially highlighted here with its connection with God’s gifts – they’re perfect, complete, lacking nothing.
It is interesting to note that in the original language the phrase “every good gift and every perfect gift” is in perfect hexameter. What this may indicate is that this is some kind of poetic line James is using to communicate what should be a well known principle to his readers, perhaps even using a line from a well known hymn sang regularly by the church to remind them about who God is. At best, it is possible.
Another point of interest: these Jewish Christians probably would have recognized and distinguished between these two words used for “gift” and also known from their Bible (the Septuagint, LXX) that these words appear together in Proverbs 21.14. That helps to identify that these are different words and therefore different concepts of giving which are being communicated, yet nevertheless, when they come from God they are good and perfect.
God is above
These gifts which are given by God come “from above.” This is a common phrase used to describe the location of God: He is in heaven. So these gifts come from the realm not only above but also beyond our finite, material universe. It points us to the spiritual nature of God. Indeed, “God is spirit” as Jesus taught (John 4.24). And since He is above, the giving and gifts flow from on high and are “coming down” from Him who sits on the throne. This present tense participle indicates that it is the regular habit and career of God to bestow good and perfect gifts and cause them to flow from the spiritual realm into the physical realm.
God is unchanging
James uses the “lights” of this physical universe of which God is the Father inasmuch as He created them to contrast the unchangeable nature of God. The sun seems to change when during the year its course is changed as the earth tilts on its axis; the shadows cast by the sun change as the day draws out; sometimes the sun is eclipsed for a time; the moon during the month seems to change as it rotates in its course, even apparently disappearing; the stars and constellations from night to night shift; stars and planets can sometimes not be seen. James uses the constant shifting and changing of creation to show God as unchanging. God is different since He is the Father (Creator) of these lights. There is no variation or change in God. He is constant, indeed the only constant in a universe of change. There is no shadow, “no darkness” whatsoever in God. As God has stated about Himself: “I, YHWH, do not change” (Mal 3.6). He is not a capricious being who one day is one way and the next He’s completely different.
God is Father
James calls Him the “Father of [the] lights.” Indeed, as Creator of sun, moon, and stars, He is Author or Father of the physical lights that we see in the sky. More than that, “God is light” (1 John 1.5) and if there would be any light whatsoever it must find its origin in God, the source of light.
But the definite article “the” can be inserted (Gk. ton photon). Hence, God is Father of the lights. Given the context in which we find this, this rendering is harmonious. God is pictured as the Father who brings forth or begets “us” (Christians) by the true word. Inasmuch as we are “the light of the world” (Matt 5.14) who reflect “the Light of the world” (John 8.12), God is our Father who brought us forth as His children. This is accord with the purpose and plan of God – He willed that this would be so. And it is!
As His children, we are “a kind of firstfruits.” For Christians today 2,000 years removed from this writing, the concept of firstfruits is primary lost on us. However, to a Jewish Christian to whom James is writing, firstfruits is loaded with significance. The Jews under the Law had a feast of firstfruits in which the first and best of the harvest were offered to God (see Lev 23.9-14). So a saved Christian who has been begotten by the true word has become a kind of firstfruit to God, set apart and holy, consecrated for offering to God. Paul would call us “living sacrifices” (Rom 12.1).
You sync all this up and James seems to be driving toward identifying Christian immersion as the good and perfect gift from the good and perfect God. These Jewish Christians to whom the gospel was first to go have, by obedience to the word of truth (the gospel), become a kind of firstfruits among the creatures of God. The harvest of God began on Pentecost and continues to today, but these Jewish converts who were the first to hope in Christ were the firstfruits of that harvest.
In one sense, this perhaps can reach even to today. When we hear the word of truth, the gospel, “which is able to save your souls” (1.21) and are obedient to that word, we are “born again,” “born of the water and spirit” in baptism. In this action, God begets us. Indeed, when Christians are pictured as being born of God (1 John 3.9) the verb is passive; here, with God pictured as the one doing the begetting, it is active. In other words, this is the work of God performed on those seeking Him out through obedience to the true word. These kinds of people (“we,” plural pronoun) become a kind of firstfruits of the creation, redeemed from the brokenness and lost-ness of creation (cf. Rom 8.18-25).