A Letter From James
By Jack Kelley
A fair amount of controversy has arisen of late over this letter, some even questioning whether it belongs in the Bible. Others say if it does, it was certainly not meant for the Church. In this series we’ll address these questions while undertaking a verse-by-verse study of the letter.
First, let’s determine who James was and when he wrote his letter. Although he never came right out and said so, many experts believe that of the four men named James who appear in the Bible, the writer was the Lord’s half brother. The other three are the disciple and brother of John (Matt. 4:21), the disciple and son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3), sometimes called James the younger, and James the father of Judas (Luke 6:16). These three are easily eliminated as not having had the stature in the early Church to have written such an authoritative letter on the strength of his name alone.
In contrast, the Lord’s half brother was a prominent figure in the church. He was called “James the Just” and “the righteous one” and was appointed by the Apostles to be the overseer (bishop) of the Church in Jerusalem. As such he presided over the Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15) where the issue of Gentiles coming into the church was decided. But like his brother Jude, he didn’t emphasize his familial relationship with the Lord (Jude 1:1). They both called themselves “servants of Jesus Christ.” Since neither of them became believers until after the resurrection, they may have felt more comfortable thinking of themselves that way.
No specific date exists to tell us exactly when James wrote his letter. But since he was writing to believers who had been scattered among the nations, we have some clues. The scattering from Jerusalem began when the persecution of believers broke out following the stoning of Stephen, around 36 AD (Acts 8:1).
James died in 62 AD. According to one tradition he was taken by the Jewish leaders to the pinnacle of the Temple where they hoped to persuade him to tell the crowd below to stop following Jesus. In full view of everyone they asked him,
“Oh, righteous one, in whom we are able to place great confidence; the people are led astray after Jesus, the crucified one. So declare to us, what is this way, Jesus?”
But they were mistaken and James responded in a loud voice.
“Why do you ask me about Jesus, the Son of Man? He sits in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and he will soon come on the clouds of heaven!”
The people were ecstatic and began to shout.”Hosanna to the Son of David!”
In a fit of rage, the leaders threw James off the Temple into the crowd, hoping to show the people what they could expect if they persisted in following Jesus.
Incredibly, the fall didn’t kill James. He rose to his knees and began to pray for his attackers, asking the Lord to forgive them. But one of them struck him in the head with a club, killing him.
From the stoning of Stephen in 36 AD to the murder of James in 62 AD gives us 26 year time frame to work with. A case can be made that he most likely wrote the letter around 50 AD. If so, that would make it the first letter written to the Church, with the possible exception of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It would also mean the letter was written too late for James the brother of John to be its author. He was put to death by Herod Agrippa in 44 AD.
James wrote his letter while the Church was mostly Jewish in composition, explaining the salutation James used, “To the twelve tribes, scattered among the nations” (James 1:1). It also explains why James’ letter is the most Jewish in its perspective of any New Testament book.
Now we know who wrote the book and approximately when he wrote it, so let’s see what he said.
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:
Trials and Temptations
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:1-4).
James was addressing the Jewish believers who had been driven from Jerusalem by the persecution. In effect, he was telling them not to be discouraged by this but to see it as an opportunity to grow stronger in their faith. Let me emphasize that God was not testing their faith. He already knew who were His. Through the persecution they were getting a chance to prove to themselves the strength of their faith. The Bible being a timeless document means the same is true for us.
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do (James 1:5-8).
As we’ll see, James repeatedly jumped from one thought to another without any warning, sometimes going back to a previous one to provide additional insight. There was no effort to make the letter flow nicely from idea to idea, or to organize it by topic, but as the Holy Spirit put this thought or that one into his head, James wrote it down. Neither could it be said that James made any effort to be diplomatic. A person had to be in a position of authority and have earned the respect of his readers to speak to them so directly.
In this case, he was encouraging his readers to seek God’s wisdom, and warning them that if they sought it, they had better believe wholeheartedly that God would provide it, or else they shouldn’t expect anything. Remember, the gospels hadn’t been written yet, and being scattered like they were, many of the believers didn’t have organized support systems to strengthen them. They were pretty much on their own, with only their faith to sustain them.
Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation-since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business (James 1:9-11).
Coming to faith in the Lord has the effect of putting everyone on a level plain. Believers who live their lives in humble circumstances here should take heart in knowing they’re part of the family of God and will dwell in eternity with Him. And those who experience the artificial elevation in status that often comes with wealth should know that when all that passes and they’re left with nothing, they will still be part of God’s family. Our status on earth, whether high or low, is temporary and fleeting. But because of our faith we’ll all be the favored children of God forever.
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him (James 1:12).
Here’s another thought on persevering under trial. James already mentioned it will result in a strong, mature faith. Now he’s saying it will also bring the crown of life. This is one of five crowns mentioned in the Bible that will be awarded to believers at the Bema judgment. These crowns are identified as the Everlasting Crown (Victory) in 1 Cor 9:25, the Crown of the Soul Winner in Phil 4:1 and 1 Thes 2:19, the Crown of Righteousness in 2 Tim 4:8, the Crown of Life in Jas 1:12 and Rev 2:10, and the Crown of Glory in 1 Peter 5:4.
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:13-15).
James makes it clear for us. God doesn’t tempt us to sin. It’s our sin nature that does this. We can’t prevent the arrival of a sinful thought at the threshold of our mind. But we haven’t sinned until we are dragged away, in other words, until we give the thought conscious consideration. If we refuse to consider it, rebuke the thought, and eject it from our mind, we’re still clean. But once we start imagining what it would be like, even fleetingly, we’ve sinned whether we act on it or not. At that point we need to confess and be forgiven (1 John 1:9).
Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created (James 1:16-18).
In contrast, every good and perfect gift is from the Lord. Paul said, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is in my sin nature” (Romans 7:18). A thought that leads to sin cannot come from God, and a thought that leads to a good and perfect gift cannot come from us. His goal for us is that we will be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that He might be the first of many brothers (Romans 8:29). Every gift from him will support that goal. No matter how much we might like to think otherwise, especially when we’re being tempted, He will neither break, suspend, nor ignore any of His laws to accommodate us.
Listening and Doing
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you (James 1:19-21).
Paul would later present almost identical instruction to the Church (Ephes. 4:25-32) saying our failure to follow these instructions causes grief to the Holy Spirit who is sealed within us to the day of redemption (Ephes. 4:30) and is therefore forced to witness all our behavior.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it-not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it-they will be blessed in what they do (James 1:22-25).
Don’t be confused by James’ mention of the law here. Notice he called it the perfect law that brings freedom. No one would describe the Levitical Law that way. Believers have freedom in Christ, the fulfillment of the law. In dying for our sins Jesus separated our belief from our behavior. He made our salvation totally dependent upon our belief, because of which God has imputed to us a righteousness apart from the Law (Romans 3:21-24).
This gives us tremendous freedom unknown in previous times. It includes the freedom to say no to sinful behavior without having the threat of judgment always hanging over our heads. Therefore, by following the behavioral instructions from the New Testament we will be blessed, because we’ll be doing so purely out of gratitude for what we’ve been freely given, instead of merely following some hard and fast rule in the hope of getting it.
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1:26-27).
Notice that James did not mention keeping the Law as being part of a pure and faultless religion. He said our religion is for helping those who can’t help themselves and living in a manner pleasing to God. Such behavior is an expression of our gratitude and is wholly consistent with New Testament doctrine. Next time we’ll cover chapter two. See you then.