“James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad, greetings” (James 1:1 NAS).
There were two apostles called James: James the son of Zebedee and brother of John; and James the son of Alphaeus. And there was also James, the Lord’s brother. It is the latter who is commonly regarded as the writer of the epistle of James. In Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians he states: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
Also, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:18-19).
Although he was not one of the twelve, James did rank as an apostle, and by AD 48 (some suggest an earlier date) James was the acknowledged leader and a pillar of the Jerusalem Church. The first Church Council called to discuss a major doctrinal controversy was presided over by James. Listening intently to Peter who had carried the faith to the Gentiles, and then to Paul and Barnabas as they recounted the experiences of their own extended missionary work among the Gentiles, James summed up, revealing his clear understanding of the depth and majesty of the divine plan (Acts 15:13-21).
James does not begin his epistle by claiming an exalted position for himself; rather he refers to himself as a “bondservant.” James directed his letter not to the Jews in Jerusalem or in the area of Israel, but to the believing Jews of the twelve tribes living in foreign lands, those “who are dispersed abroad.” The ten northern tribes had been carried away into captivity by the Assyrians in 721 BC and the two-tribe kingdom (Judah) was taken captive by the Babylonians about 586 BC.
A number of important topics were addressed by James to the dispersed brethren, which covered a broad area deeply affecting their Christian wellbeing, in matters covering aspects of morality, as well as the day-to-day interaction between brethren and their worldly neighbors. For instance, James discussed patient endurance of trials, the need for wisdom, a wavering faith, desire for riches, blaming God for their difficulties, evil speaking which he describes as the power of the tongue, faith without works, neglect of the poor, selfish ambition, quarreling among themselves, and the importance of fervent prayer, as these negative attributes had caused some to become spiritually sick. These issues appear to have been widespread among the dispersed Jewish brethren, which necessitated the writing of this letter by James.
It had come to James’ attention that some of the Jewish brethren living abroad had become extreme, trusting in faith alone, but noticeably deficient in manifestations of that faith. Among some of these brethren there appeared to be lacking a development of the character that would indicate a transforming influence of the holy spirit in their lives, exhibiting the desired fruitage, such as gentleness, meekness, brotherly kindness and love. These are the character traits that reveal a true faith in Christ, that which is developed in the heart. In the present day, the development of a God-like character seems as hard to accomplish as it was in the early days of the Christian Church, yet just as vital and certainly no less so.
James begins his epistle with the words “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2). To “consider” is to think carefully in order to arrive at a judgment or decision, according to Webster’s dictionary. Trials which have been permitted by the Lord are necessary for the development of our characters. “Knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance (steadfastness). And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:3-4). We are reminded of the familiar texts: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines and He scourges every son whom He receives” (Hebrews 12:5,6). “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11).
“Afterwards” appears to be key to understanding how we may be joyful during our trials, for we must look beyond the immediate suffering or difficulty, knowing that the end result will be joyful indeed if we faithfully endure. “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Peter 4:13). Many of the Lord’s people at this end of the age, just as in the apostles’ day, experience suffering on many levels — bereavement, illness, pain, disappointments, heartbreak. Severe suffering of any sort is not joyful in itself, and one cannot help but seek some relief. The Apostle Paul exhorts us to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). This rejoicing “in the Lord” is peculiar to those who are in heart relationship to God, desiring that His will be done in their lives, even though it involves sufferings. This is a rejoicing of the spirit, an inner joy, which if rightly understood will bring forth the desirable fruits of the spirit — patient endurance, wisdom, meekness, brotherly kindness and love. Our highest and best example of this rejoicing is our precious Lord: “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
Double-Minded and Unstable
James also admonishes the brethren to ask for wisdom from above, and he assures us that if one asks in faith, it will be given to him. However, if there is a doubtful disposition, a hesitancy to take God at his word, James calls this person “a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8; literally “a two-souled man”), and that he should not expect a positive answer to his petition. One must exhibit faith without wavering and be not as those who are “like the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6).
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians states: “we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). James reminds brethren of the faith of Abraham when God called upon him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. Besides our Lord, there is no more magnificent demonstration of absolute faith in God, for Abraham had no doubt as to God’s promise that Isaac would live before Him.
Once we have proved a matter to our satisfaction, we must not allow the winds of confusion and ambivalence to affect us, but settle the matter in our minds once for all. Only then may we progress in our understanding of the deep things of God and the all-important development of a Christ-like character. “And after you have suffered for a little, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10).
“But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22). James likens this being merely hearers to looking at one’s face in a mirror, and as soon as we look away, we have forgotten what we looked like. “But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25). We must take the perfect word of God into our minds and hearts. It must become part of us, and if it abides in us we cannot help but become “an effectual doer” (James 1:25). There is great blessing attached to the doing of that which James calls the “Royal Law:” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself ” (James 2:8).
The doctrine of justification by faith taught by the Apostle Paul, “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1), in no way contradicts James’ position that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). Faith is the basis for justification before God. However, being doers of the word and not hearers only is the work we must do in order to bring about the transforming of our characters, as Paul exhorts: “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2). “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). “So that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10). “Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:18).
As James so eloquently stated: “Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).
Another significant statement of James is in chapter 3 verse 17: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.”
The wisdom from above, being from God, is absolutely pure, and if our hearts are pure, we are in harmony with that holy wisdom and we have peace with God through Christ Jesus. James shows us how, out of a pure heart, the fruits of the spirit are manifested — by gentleness, by reasonableness, or a willingness to yield one’s position if not a matter of principle; that one must be full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, as he brings out in the first chapter, and very important, without hypocrisy.
Jesus denounced the Pharisees for this very characteristic: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28). Furthermore, he warns the religious leaders that their pretense of holiness puts them in grave danger of the judgment of Gehenna. We understand this could signify an incorrigible spirit leading to second death. So purity of heart is paramount, as Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
The last subject to address here is found in James the fifth chapter: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:13-16).
Do we not pray for those who are suffering? Of course, we do. Not that we wish to instruct the Lord as to the outcome of a situation, but we are urged to lay all our petitions before the Lord and let him do as he sees good. Jesus prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet, not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). The Apostle Peter urges us in the following manner: “casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
The sickness mentioned in this verse may be spiritual in nature or perhaps even physical. We have been made aware in our day that negative emotions such as grief and guilt can bring on physical and mental suffering and disease. But we are assured that the fervent prayer of a consecrated servant of the Lord can be very effective. And the suffering one is also urged to pray; that when he repents, the Lord will forgive him and “raise him up.”
James refers to the prophet Elijah who “prayed earnestly that it might not rain and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the sky poured rain, and the earth produced its fruit” (James 5:17-18). He follows this example of effective prayer by urging brethren to seek to recover another if it is found that he or she is straying from the truth and assures us “that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). This is a familiar passage, one that is oft repeated not only by Christians, but is commonly held as a proverb even by those more worldly-minded. Some Biblical scholars have referred to the epistle of James as the proverbs of the New Testament.
James provides the Lord’s people with the solemn reminder that our eternal future is being determined by our new creature’s development here and now. “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2).
Paul tells us: “But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).
According to Josephus and others, James was thrown from one of the galleries of the Temple, and then martyred by stoning, shortly before Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army in AD 70. He continued to confess the truth concerning Jesus until the very end of his devoted life of service to both God and the brethren in those early days of the establishment of the Church. Let each of us endeavor to do likewise.
(1) Editor’s note: Others consider James, the brother of our Lord, the chairman of the church in Jerusalem, to be James the Less (or James the Short), the son of Alphaeus. Then in Matthew 13:55 only the brothers, James and Judas (Jude), believed on him and were apostles.
(2) Josephus, Antiquities 20,9,1, with later enhancements by Eusebius, Church History II.1 and II.23. Scriptures quoted from the original New American Standard Version (NAS).