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 (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 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 discourse on a question of great significance for all followers of Christ. The question is, what is true godliness. Never has ignorance of the right answer been more prevalent than 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 may seem prosperous but that 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.
The nature of godly religion has a prominent place in James’s epistle because it serves as a stepping-stone to his main message. He wants above all to convince us that we should earnestly strive for godliness. 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.
- 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 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 good works flow from love, it succeeds in its purpose, which is to define 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 many years earlier. If so, it would not be at all surprising if He shared them to some extent with His own family.