The general opinion of Bible students is that the James who wrote the epistle of James was 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 living so close to Jesus fail to recognize who He was? No doubt living under the shadow of a brother who was perfect in every way was a sore trial to a young boy with ordinary imperfections. It was impossible for Mary and Joseph not to show favoritism to Jesus, creating tension between Him and His younger siblings.
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 (Acts 1:14) until they received the baptism of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. In the following years he quickly rose to a place of leadership 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 highly respected 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.
It is important to understand what the Book of James is not. It is not a treatise on doctrine. It contains little doctrine beyond the opening statement that Jesus is also Lord and Christ. Also, it is not a book of history or prophecy. Nor does it deal with the problems in a particular church. Rather it is a book that poses the question, what is true godliness?
It approaches the answer in several ways. As we will see, the author 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” (James 1:27). Obviously, he did not mean to limit charitable works to the one he chose as an example. Rather, he meant 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 added the requirement to remain unsoiled by the world. Personal separation without practical expressions of love for the lost and for the brethren is sterile. It chokes off a vibrant testimony for Christ and leads to dead churches. But good works without personal separation are pointless. They lead to churches that may seem prosperous but that lack 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.
The greater portion of the Book of James is devoted to showing us the cardinal Christian virtues. He makes godliness concrete by explaining at length how these virtues have played out in the lives of saints and how they should play out in our lives.
Because of its emphasis on works as proof of faith, the Book of James has always been a theological battleground. Luther called it a straw epistle, charging that it should be removed from the canon. He thought that the author was teaching that salvation requires both faith and works. In fact, the book is not intended to show the reader how to be saved. Nowhere does it present the gospel. Rather, it builds on the assumption that the reader is already saved, and it seeks to show him how to live the Christian life.
Altogether, the virtues that James treats at length number fourteen.
- Humility (1:1; 4:6-10).
- Endurance through trials (1:2-4; 5:10-11).
- Wisdom (1:5; 3:13-18).
- Effective prayer (1:6-8; 4:2-3; 5:13-18).
- Contentment in poverty (1:9).
- Distrust of riches (1:10-11; 5:1-6).
- Victory over sin (1:12-18, 21; 4:1-2, 7-10, 17).
- Discipline in speech (1:19-20, 26; 3:1-12; 4:11-12; 5:9).
- Agreement between profession and life (1:22-25; 2:14-26).
- Meeting the needs of others (1:27; 2:12-17; 5:19-20).
- Separation from the world (1:27; 4:4-5).
- Treatment of all brothers as equals (2:1-11).
- Submission to God’s sovereign control of the future (4:13-16; 5:7-8).
- Speech without swearing (5:12).
In discussing these virtues, James does not move through the list one by one. Rather, he designs his epistle 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 book 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
James is one of two epistles addressed to Jewish believers. The other is Hebrews. (The meaning of the opening words in 1 Peter is debatable.) The feature of James marking it 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 refers often to the law, it is the law viewed in its essence, as a description of how we make love practical. He endorses Jesus’ teaching that the law may be summarized as our obligation to love our neighbor as ourselves (James 2:8; compare with Matt. 22:37-40), and he makes this obligation supreme by giving it such titles as the law of liberty (James 1:25; 2:12) and the royal law (James 2:8). Therefore, since the book 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 good works flow from love, it succeeds in its purpose, which is to define true godliness.
In its topics and phraseology, the book 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. Some of the many other parallels include James 4:6 and Proverbs 3:34, James 4:13-16 and Proverbs 27:1, and James 5:2 and Job 13:28. Yet the Book of James overlaps even more with 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 Book of James as a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. Being rooted in the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament and in the Sermon on the Mount, which is itself a commentary on Old Testament law, gives the Book of James its distinctly Jewish slant.
It is evident throughout the book that James’s thinking was profoundly molded by the thinking of his older brother. Yet he had not been one of the disciples who walked with Him 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 many years earlier. If so, it would not be at all surprising if He shared them to some extent with His own family.
© 2007, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.