The Lord's Brother


The general opinion of Bible students is that the Epistle of James was written by James, the brother of Christ. The eldest of four younger brothers (Matt. 13:55), he was throughout the years of Jesus’ ministry, at least in the latter portion, an unbeliever in Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and Son of God (John 7:2-5). How could a man so close to Jesus fail to recognize who He was? Growing up in the shadow of an older brother who was perfect in every way had no doubt been a sore trial to a boy with ordinary imperfections. It was impossible for Mary and Joseph not to treat Jesus with a special respect that tempted His younger siblings to feel jealous. Perhaps some lingering jealousy in James’s heart was the barrier to faith.

Yet James’s unbelief melted away when Jesus rose from the dead and personally appeared to him (1 Cor. 15:7). He then became a devout follower of Christ. After Jesus ascended to heaven, James was among the 120 who waited in the Upper Room until they received the baptism of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:14). In the following years he quickly rose to eminence in the church. At the church council recorded in Acts 15, he gave the final speech, pronouncing a verdict that the council adopted as its official position (Acts 15:13-30). In later years he was the acknowledged leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 21:18). Among the Jews generally, especially the poor, he was greatly admired for his pious and self-denying manner of life. He spent so much time in prayer that his knees bore calluses. It was said that they resembled the knees of a camel.

Yet he was not popular with the Jewish leaders. The Jewish historian Josephus records that under circumstances we can place in about AD 61, he met a martyr’s death similar to Stephen’s. A Sanhedrin persuaded that he was a law-breaker dragged him out of the city and stoned him.


Our study of James’s epistle must proceed from an understanding of what it is not. It is not a treatise on doctrine. It contains little doctrine beyond the opening statement that Jesus is also Lord and Christ. It is not a book of history or prophecy. And it is not a letter of advice from a spiritual leader seeking to help a particular person or group. Rather, it is a sermon addressing a question of far-reaching significance for all followers of Christ. The question is, what is true godliness. Clearly proclaiming the right answer from pulpits and media is an urgent need in our day, when many even in conservative churches are drowning in self-satisfied pseudoreligion.

The author illuminates the right answer from various standpoints. As we will see, the brightest light appears when he provides the term "godliness" with a formal definition. "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (Jas. 1:27). Obviously, he does not mean to limit charitable works to the one he chooses as an example. Rather, he means that any religion that does not produce a life devoted to helping other people is empty and worthless. But, lest anyone think that charitable works alone are genuine religion, James adds a second requirement: to remain unsoiled by the world. Unless a church excels in meeting both requirements, it cannot glow with godliness, showing that God dwells among them. Personal separation from the world without practical expressions of love for fellow believers as well as unbelievers is sterile. It chokes off a vibrant testimony for Christ and leads to a dead church. But good works without personal separation are pointless. They produce a church that, although it may may seem prosperous, lacks the power of God to gain eternal results. God will not pour favor on a church that fails to draw its spiritual babes away from the power of sin.

James gives central place in his epistle to the question, what is godliness, because it serves as a stepping-stone to his main message. He wants above all to convince us that we should earnestly strive to be godly. To overcome any carnal inertia that may be holding us back, he reminds us that godliness is the natural and inevitable outgrowth of saving faith. He goes so far as to say, "Faith without works is dead" (Jas. 2:20).

Because of its emphasis on works as proof of faith, the Epistle of James has always been a theological battleground. Martin Luther, trailblazer of the Protestant Reformation, considered it a "straw epistle," unworthy to be included in the canon. He charged the author with teaching that salvation requires both faith and works. Later in his career, however, Luther came to recognize the value and authority of James’s contribution to the New Testament. In fact, the Epistle of James is not intended to show the reader how to be saved. Nowhere does it present the gospel. Rather, building on the assumption that the reader is already saved, it shows him how to live the Christian life.


To make godliness concrete, James warns us against the many ways we might fail to practice the cardinal Christian virtues. Altogether, the virtues that he treats either briefly or at length number fourteen.

  1. Humility (1:1; 4:6-10).
  2. Endurance through trials (1:2-4; 5:10-11).
  3. Wisdom (1:5; 3:13-18).
  4. Effective prayer (1:6-8; 4:2-3; 5:13-18).
  5. Contentment in poverty (1:9).
  6. Distrust of riches (1:10-11; 5:1-6).
  7. Victory over sin (1:12-18, 21; 4:1-2, 7-10, 17).
  8. Discipline in speech (1:19-20, 26; 3:1-12; 4:11-12; 5:9).
  9. Agreement between profession and life (1:22-25; 2:14-26).
  10. Meeting the needs of others (1:27; 2:12-17; 5:19-20).
  11. Separation from the world (1:27; 4:4-5).
  12. Treatment of all brothers as equals (2:1-11).
  13. Submission to God’s sovereign control of the future (4:13-16; 5:7-8).
  14. Speech without swearing (5:12).

In discussing these virtues, James does not move through the list one by one. Rather, he designs his epistle to be like a symphony. Each virtue is a theme that runs through the whole work, sometimes becoming prominent on the surface and at other times receding into the background, sometimes appearing alone and sometimes in combination with other themes so that we can see how they relate to each other. The epistle is also like a tapestry woven of long threads spanning the two ends. In between, each is visible in places and hidden elsewhere. The structure helps us to learn by giving us the main ideas repeatedly. It also brings these ideas into different contexts, so as to enlarge their application.

Sources and Parallels

The Epistle of James is one of two New Testament books addressed to Jewish believers. The other is Hebrews. (The meaning of the opening words in 1 Peter is debatable.) The feature marking James's work as Jewish is its preoccupation with living according to the law. Jews did not lose their zeal for the law when they became believers in Christ. Certainly James did not. He was a strong voice in the church arguing that the law should remain the proper rule of life for any Jew (Acts 21:18-24). But in his epistle, James is less concerned with the letter of the law than with its spirit. He says nothing about the sacrifices and ceremonies of the outmoded Mosaic system. He refrains from dwelling on particular commandments in the Old Testament. Although he often refers to the law, it is the law viewed in its essence, as a prescription for making love practical. He endorses Jesus’ teaching that the law governing relations between man and man may be summarized as an obligation to love our neighbor as ourselves (Jas. 2:8; compare with Matt. 22:37-40), and he makes this obligation supreme by giving it such titles as the law of liberty (Jas. 1:25; 2:12) and the royal law (Jas. 2:8). Therefore, since the Epistle of James perfectly reflects Jesus’ own view of the law, it is good reading not just for Jews, but for all believers. And by teaching us that love should be the standard for our behavior, it succeeds in its purpose, which is to encourage true godliness.

In its topics and phraseology, the epistle is similar to the so-called Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament—the portion incorporating the books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Compare, for example, James 1:19 with Proverbs 10:19, 16:32, 17:27, and Ecclesiastes 7:9. Other examples of convergence include James 4:6 with Proverbs 3:34; James 4:13-16 with Proverbs 27:1; and James 5:2 with Job 13:28.

Yet the epistle overlaps even more the Sermon on the Mount, at times almost reproducing Jesus’ words. The similarity is most striking in James 4:9 (alluding to Matt. 5:4), James 4:11 (alluding to Matt. 7:1-5), James 4:17 (alluding to Matt. 7:12), James 5:2 (alluding to Matt. 6:20), and James 5:12 (alluding to Matt. 5:34-37). It would not be far wrong to characterize the epistle as a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount.

The parallels between the two works illustrate how profoundly James’s thinking was molded by his older brother. Yet James had not been one of the disciples who walked with Jesus day by day during His ministry. Perhaps the mind of Jesus shines out so clearly from the writings of James because he listened to his brother all through his formative years. Many of the ideas that Jesus presented in His public ministry must have taken shape during His youth. If so, it would not be at all surprising if He shared them to some extent with His own family.


1. Is my relationship to brothers and sisters still clouded by sibling rivalry?

No doubt you remember that in your childhood, you and your siblings did not always live in perfect harmony. When our family went on trips, my wife and I sitting in the front of the car, my two sons in the back, we sometimes heard the older cry out that his brother was jabbing him, or otherwise "picking on him." We then dutifully lectured the younger on how to behave while we were all riding together, and the commotion stopped, at least for a while. It was not until years later that we discovered the true story of life in the back seat. The cause of strife was usually the older brother, who, in very subtle and quiet ways, teased the younger until, exasperated, he fought back.

That sort of friction between siblings is not confined to a car. It is part of everyday life and can lead to deep-seated rivalry. The older view the younger as a nuisance. The younger see the older as having a superior attitude. But all this is childishness we should outgrow.

Make sure that today you truly value and love your siblings. They may not be perfect, but God put them in your life as an opportunity for lifelong ministry. Keep in touch with them. Express your regard for them. Help them when they need it. Remember that except for some minor reshuffling of genes, they are exactly like you, so if you deserve the best in terms of God’s mercy and grace, so do they.

2. Do I understand and apply the principle that the road to true success is not self-promotion but self-denial?

The church raised James to the place of leadership not simply because he was Jesus’ brother. He was a man whose life centered on helping others. He exemplified Jesus’ teaching, "And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all" (Mark 10:44). How do you measure your own stature? How do others measure it? Do you—do they—give first consideration to how unsparingly and lovingly you reach out to meet the needs of people both inside and outside the church. Serving others at the cost of self-sacrifice is the only criterion of greatness that counts in heaven.

3. In my own life, do I seek both good works and separation, and do I keep them in balance?

It is easy to emphasize one at the expense of the other, but you need to cultivate both. Just as a church cannot prosper if it ignores either duty or gets them out of balance, so the same mistakes can keep you personally from being a fruitful servant of God.

It is spiritually meaningless to stay in such isolation from the world that you become wholly preoccupied with yourself. What are you really accomplishing if you never look at the TV or internet, never attend any shows or dances, never dress in anything doubtful, and never let anything unhealthy pass through your lips, but if at the same time you never share the griefs or cares of others, never speak a word of witness to the lost, and never give a cent of your money to a good cause?

But it is also spiritually meaningless if, to help publicans and sinners, you adopt their way of life. You accomplish nothing worthwhile if, besides eating with them as Jesus did (Matt. 9:11), you echo their suggestive humor, copy their clothing, and follow them to all their places of sin.

The Christian life requires both separation and good deeds.

4. Do I have a proper view of moral law—that it is God’s prescription for making love practical?

We are prone to dislike anything labeled as law. We see it as a burden better done away with. To be "legalistic" is something bad.

But do you understand that the law of God, even though it convicts us as sinners, is a glorious testimony to God’s spotless character? It exalts Him by defining His perfect holiness. Yet we tend to see holiness in the wrong way. We do not look into it deeply enough to find its core, which is love. To be remote from all manner of evil is what love demands, because evil, large or small, is an attack on God’s beloved creatures. It is a threat to their welfare. The Ten Commandments, the grand summary of all good laws, is simply a manual on how not to hurt anybody, whether ourselves by estrangement from God or others by taking what is theirs. Thus, as Jesus said, all law deriving from the Word of God merely expresses two basic obligations: "Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind," and "Love thy neighbor as thyself" (Matt. 22:37, 39).

5. In my own life, do I cherish the Wisdom Literature and the Sermon on the Mount as daily guides to my priorities and decisions?

These resources for building wisdom cannot help you much unless you study them—to be more precise, unless you memorize them. Other Scriptures are equally deserving of your time, but these are especially helpful for teaching you good judgment as you travel the road of difficult moral choices. Add to these, of course, the Epistle of James, another treasure trove for anyone desirous of becoming more like Christ in his everyday conduct.

Study Questions

  1. What was the relationship between James and Jesus?
  2. How did James become a disciple?
  3. What position did he attain in the church?
  4. What was his manner of life and how did he die?
  5. What is the purpose of the Epistle of James?
  6. How does the epistle define true godliness?
  7. Why did Luther regard it as a straw epistle?
  8. To whom is the epistle addressed, and what emphasis did the intended audience produce?
  9. Whose view of the law do we find reflected in this epistle?
  10. What other portions of Scripture does it resemble?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.