Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

—James 1:17

Now for God to alter or change at all, to be different from Himself, one of three things has to take place:

1) God must go from better to worse, or

2) He must go from worse to better, or

3) He must change from one kind of being to another.

Now that’s so plain that anybody can follow it; there’s nothing profound about that. (Occasionally somebody will say I preach over their head. All I can say is, they must have their head awfully low!) Isn’t it reasonable to assume that if anything changes it has to change from better to worse, from worse to better or from one kind of thing to another? …

Therefore, if God is to change, then God either has to get better or worse or different. But God can’t go from better to worse, because God is a holy God. Because God is eternal holiness, He can never be any less holy than He is now. And of course, He never can be any more holy than He is now, because He is perfect just as He is. There will never be a change in God—no change is necessary! AOGII092-093

There is a wonderful stability in this truth, Lord. Thank You for Your unchangeable perfection. Amen. [1]

1:16, 17 It is not unusual for people who fall into sin to blame God instead of themselves. They say, in effect, to their Creator, “Why have you made me this way?” But this is a form of self-deception. Only good gifts come from God. In fact, He is the source of every good and every perfect gift.

James describes God as the Father of lights. In the Bible the word Father sometimes has the meaning of Creator or Source (see Job 38:28). Therefore God is the Creator or Source of lights. But what is meant by lights? Certainly it includes the heavenly bodies—the sun, moon, and stars (Gen. 1:14–18; Ps. 136:7). But God is also the Source of all spiritual light as well. So we should think of Him as the Source of every form of light in the universe. With whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. God is unlike the heavenly bodies He has created. They are undergoing constant changes. He never does. Perhaps James is thinking not only of the declining brilliance of the sun and stars, but also of their changing relation to the earth as our planet rotates. Variableness characterizes the sun, moon, and stars. The expression shadow of turning may mean shadow caused by turning. This could have reference to the shadows cast on earth by the rotation of the earth around the sun. Or it could refer to eclipses. A solar eclipse, for instance, is produced when the moon’s shadow falls on the earth. With God it is quite different; there is no variableness in Him, or shadow caused by turning. And His gifts are as perfect as Himself. Therefore it is unthinkable that He would ever entice man to sin. Temptation comes from man’s own evil nature.

Let us test our faith on the subject of unholy temptations. Do we encourage evil thoughts to linger in our minds, or do we expel them quickly? When we sin, do we say that we couldn’t help it? Do we blame God when we are tempted to sin?[2]

  1. Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. 17. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

James is a pastor who fully understands the hearts of those who live scattered abroad far from home and former possessions. He knows that their lot is difficult, and that they have begun to direct their complaints to God. As a trained leader he counsels them by addressing them as “dear brothers,” and he warns them not to be deceived. He wants them to consider the person and the characteristics of God.

The readers ought to know that God does not send his children sorrow and grief to drive them from him. He gives them adversities so that they may come to him and rely fully on him. God has absolutely nothing in common with evil, for he abhors that which is not holy. Therefore, the readers ought not to think that God instigates evil. Never!

Yet, some Christians who are tested and tried lose perspective and question the providence of God. If God is almighty, why does he not prevent tragedy and calamity? Man can multiply the verbal and nonverbal accusations directed to God, but he ought not to do so. Instead he should direct attention to what God gives and who God is. In our study, then, let us note:

  • God’s goodness

God is goodness personified; he is the fountain of all that is good, for goodness originates with him. God gives by creating heaven and earth; God gives by sending his Son; God gives by pouring out his Spirit. The gifts God makes available to his people are good and perfect—every one of them. They include spiritual and material gifts.

All things come to us out of God’s hand, for we receive both prosperity and adversity from him. God gives his people trials and tests that at times come in the form of calamity. Says the prophet Amos to the people of Israel, “When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?” (3:6).

God is fully in control of every situation and knows what is best for his children. “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11; compare Luke 11:13).

  • God’s character

James moves from speaking about the gifts to speaking about the giver, that is, about God himself. Good and perfect gifts come down from heaven, “from the Father of the heavenly lights.” The writer encourages the reader to look up to the sky where he will see the brilliant light of the sun by day, the reflective light of the moon by night, and the twinkling stars. God is the creator of these heavenly lightbearers; he himself is nothing but light. “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Therefore, darkness cannot exist in the presence of God. In this light, God displays his holiness, goodness, love, integrity, and unchangeableness.

Note that James calls God the “Father” of lights and uses this figure of speech to illustrate God’s absolute stability. God “does not change like shifting shadows.” The being, nature, and characteristics of God are unchangeable (Mal. 3:6). As the earth, sun, moon, and stars move in their ordained courses, we observe the interplay of light and darkness, day and night, the longest and the shortest day of the year, the waning and the waxing of the moon, eclipses, and the movements of the planets. Nature is subject to variation and change. Not so with God! He is the Father of the heavenly lights, who is always light and does not change. He has an abiding interest in his children.[3]

The Nature of God

Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. (1:17)

Finally, James declares that God is not responsible for our temptations to sin because, as he has already made clear (v. 13), His own nature is incompatible with the nature of sin. Because God is wholly righteous and just, by definition He can have no part in sin, in any way or to any degree.

What comes from God is not sin, but only every good thing given and every perfect gift. The perfect, flawless, holy goodness of God results in His doing and giving only what reflects His perfect holiness and truth. His works reflect His character. Negatively, James is saying that, from temptation to execution, God has absolutely no responsibility for sin. Positively, he is saying that God has complete responsibility for every good thing, and that every perfect gift that exists has come down from above.

The Father of lights was an ancient Jewish title for God, referring to Him as Creator, as the great Giver of light, in the form of the sun, moon, and stars (cf. Gen. 1:14–19). Unlike those sources of light, which, magnificent as they are, can nevertheless vary and will eventually fade, God’s character, power, wisdom, and love have no variation or shifting shadow. Through Malachi the Lord declares, “I, the Lord, do not change” (Mal. 3:6); through John, we are told that “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5); and through the writer of Hebrews we are assured that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever” (Heb. 13:8). The celestial bodies God created have various phases of movement and rotation, changing from hour to hour and varying in intensity and shadow. God, however, is changeless.

Our Lord promises:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him! (Matt. 7:7–11)

Even more than those things—infinitely more than those things—He promises that our heavenly Father will give us His own Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13).

The implication of this passage is this: When we, as God’s children, are so abundantly and continually showered with the most gracious, valuable, and satisfying blessings our heavenly Father can bestow, why should anything evil have the slightest attraction to us? [4]

17 The contrast between the insidious nature of evil desire and the picture James now paints of God’s nature could not be more stark. As in 1:5, James portrays God as a generous giver—a giver of “every good and perfect gift” (NIV). The author crafts the sentence in Greek poetically (pasa dosis agathē … pan dōrēma teleion), and the NASB maintains the balance of the wording better than the NIV with “every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift.” Commentators point out that James may have adapted a common proverb, something along the lines of “every gift is good and every present perfect,” roughly equivalent in meaning to “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” (Davids, 86). Whether the wording is his own or not, James’s confession is clear: God’s gifts are good, not evil. Whereas temptation—an evil force that leads to sin and death—has its source in human lust, good gifts have God as their source.

These good and perfect gifts “come down from the Father of lights.” James has in mind here the heavenly bodies—sun, moon, and stars—and they are seen as part of God’s good creation (Ge 1:14–18). Further, he tells us that, unlike these heavenly bodies he has created, God’s character does not involve “variation or shifting shadow” (NASB). These words are used only here in the NT, but in the literature of the period they could be used in astrological discussions. The first word means “change,” or, as the NASB presents it, “variation.” The second was used as a technical term in astronomy for the movement, or change of position, of the heavenly bodies and can be translated “turning.” So the “shadow” is caused by the movement, or turning, of the heavenly lights. In both Greek and Jewish literature the heavenly bodies represent the always changing nature of existence. Yet God’s nature is different. He does not shift and move with reference to issues of good or evil; rather, he is immovable in that sense (Dibelius, 102; Johnson 196–97).[5]

[1] Tozer, A. W., & Eggert, R. (2015). Tozer on the almighty god: a 365-day devotional. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 2221–2222). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, pp. 52–53). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 54–57). Chicago: Moody Press.

[5] Guthrie, G. H. (2006). James. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 223–224). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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