We have spent most of our time so far in this series reviewing the life and teaching of a man who never met Jesus during His time on earth: the apostle Paul. In the last installment, we came to the conclusion of his life, likely by execution in Nero’s Rome. But the story surrounding the apostles doesn’t end there.
Our main source in this series has been the Acts of the Apostles, written by Paul’s travel companion Luke. Of the original 12 apostles, Judas Iscariot had already committed suicide (Matthew 27:1–5) and is not even mentioned by name in Acts; the remaining 11 are named only once (Acts 1:13). Nevertheless, with Matthias replacing Judas (verse 26), Luke refers to them as a renewed group of 12 (Acts 6:2; see also 6:6; 4:33; 5:18, 29; 15:2; 16:4). Among them in the early days of the Church were also several women (including Jesus’ mother, Mary) and His brothers (Acts 1:14).
But Acts is not the only source of information about some of the individuals closest to Jesus. They are also known through their own writings. Letters written by Simon Peter, John, James and Jude form part of the New Testament. Here we explore the biography and written work of James.
Some readers will recall that in the early days of the Church, about 44 C.E., King Herod Agrippa killed the apostle James, the son of Zebedee and one of the original 12 (see Acts 12:1–2). Thus it must be another James to whom Luke refers in verse 17 of the same chapter, where he records that Peter sent news of his release from prison to someone named James. Though as many as seven different people by the same name have been identified in the New Testament, it is James the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19) who is the most likely in this case. As we have just seen, Jesus’ brothers were present with the apostles in Jerusalem as the Church began after Jesus’ departure (Acts 1:14). This same James appears later in Acts as the leader of the church at Jerusalem, so it’s reasonable to suggest that he is the author of the New Testament book by that name.
As leader in Jerusalem, James spoke with authority to end an internal Church controversy over the circumcision of gentile believers (Acts 15:13–19; see also 21:18). And according to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, the Jewish religious hierarchy put to death by stoning “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” (Antiquities of the Jews 20.200). This would have been around 62 C.E.
But was this James also an apostle? While he is never named directly as such in the New Testament, the argument has been made that his family relationship to Jesus accorded him a unique role. Paul, who himself became an apostle but was not of the 12, seems to indicate James’s apostolic function when writing about one of his visits to Jerusalem. He says, “I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19). But scholars have suggested that this is not an unequivocal statement. An alternate translation says, “Other than the apostles I saw no one except James, the Lord’s brother.”
James the Unbeliever
What more can we know of James and his earlier life from the Gospel accounts? Mark and Matthew indicate that he was one of several children born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus’ birth. Mark records an incident in Jesus’ ministry where his fellow townsmen derided Him as merely a local: “‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him” (Mark 6:3; see also Matthew 13:55–56).
There was a time when James and the rest of the family were opposed to Jesus’ ministry and teaching. At one point, they actually thought Him mad (Mark 3:21). John tells us that “not even his brothers believed in him” (John 7:5).
By the opening of the book of Acts, however, James had become one of the disciples. But even though he was Jesus’ brother, he did not take up the vacancy caused by Judas’s death, because the remaining 11 were to choose as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection “one of the men who ha[d] accompanied [them] during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among [them]” (Acts 1:21). James soon became the leader of the Jerusalem church, as demonstrated by the fact that Paul met with him and the apostle Peter (also called Cephas) when he first went to Jerusalem after his conversion (Galatians 1:18–19). He met James on another occasion when he brought famine relief to Jerusalem from the churches outside Judea (Acts 21:18).
The fact that James was leader in Jerusalem is attested by such extrabiblical sources as the second-century historian Hegesippus. He wrote that following James’s death, the Church chose another of Jesus’ blood relatives, His cousin Simon or Simeon, to be leader—thus implying that up to that time James had held the post. According to Eusebius, another reference is found in the (now lost) writings of Clement of Alexandria (ca. 153–217 C.E.), who says that Peter and John chose James for his office (Books of the Hypotyposes 6). And writing in the fifth century, Jerome says that James “ruled the church of Jerusalem thirty years, that is until the seventh year of Nero” (Lives of Illustrious Men, chapter 2).
It was in this capacity that James most likely wrote the letter by his name.
James’s Tour de Force
The short book of James is a moral, doctrinal and literary masterpiece. While some have thought its content at odds with the writings of Paul, its emphasis on living according to “the perfect law,” “the law of liberty” and “the royal law” (James 1:25; 2:8) places it firmly within the same Judaic tradition. Close examination of its central concepts reveals the complementary nature of each man’s thinking.
James opens by emphasizing his submission to “God and … the Lord Jesus Christ,” addressing his audience across a wide geographic area: “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings” (James 1:1). Coming from a Jewish background, James was aware of the history of ancient Israel and its origins with the 12 sons of Jacob. That many of their descendants, not just those from the tribe of Judah, had been dispersed through captivity, persecution and migration explains his reference. James was writing to Church members descended from these tribes in what was considered the area of the Diaspora—today’s Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions (see also Acts 2:9–11; 1 Peter 1:1; John 7:35).
The followers of Jesus in any age have one experience in common—they face trials of faith for a great purpose, and James addresses this at the outset of his letter: “The testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:3), which in turn brings spiritual completion in the form of eternal life (“the crown of life,” verse 12). Thus he contextualizes trying circumstances in the light of spiritual development. And if trials cause us to recognize our need for wisdom in dealing with them, then we should ask God for such help in confidence. Double-mindedness achieves nothing; quiet trust in God’s guidance and help is the key (verses 5–8). Wealth affords little protection against these kinds of problems. The rich will eventually fade like the grass of the field (verses 9–11).
James further cautions against falling into the trap of blaming God for the difficulties we bring on ourselves by succumbing to sin (verses 13–15). God gives good gifts to His children, not the evil consequences of our own wrong actions. Thankfully, He is unlike fallible and variable humanity: He is “the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” We can rely on Him implicitly if we so choose. He is the one who has willed that His people be given truth in this life, before others receive it, so that they will become “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (verses 17–18).
James’s emphasis on the practice of right living is found early in the letter. At the close of the first chapter he sets the tone for what will follow. He draws the contrast between natural human ways of behaving—we are slow to hear, quick to speak and quickly angry—and God’s ways. Human anger cannot produce godly righteousness. It is the Word of God that instructs us in right ways. But knowing is not enough, he writes; we must act on what we know to be right. Otherwise it is like looking at our image in the mirror, seeing what is wrong, and doing nothing to remedy what we find (verses 23–24). Thus, defining meaningful religion, James expresses its core in terms of both self-control and positive, outgoing action. He says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (verses 26–27). The theme of acting on belief will recur throughout the letter.
The law of God covers all aspects of human behavior in principle, and James gives several examples of how belief should result in changed, law-abiding behavior. First, he writes that favoring one person over another according to his or her wealth and status has no place in the godly value system (James 2:1–9). After all, he says, it is too often the wealthy who exploit and disadvantage the poor. They may even disparage the name of Jesus.
James’s example involves two men coming into the meeting of Jesus’ followers as visitors. One is well dressed and wealthy, the other shabbily dressed and poor. James says that respecting the first over the other because of wealth and social standing would be wrong. It would be dishonoring and humiliating the poor. Showing partiality is breaking one part of the law by not loving neighbor as self—one of the two great overall principles of the Ten Commandments (see Matthew 22:35–40). And breaking law is sin. It is a biblical concept that keeping all but one law still renders us accountable. For example, James says, by refusing to commit adultery, but on the other hand committing murder, it is as if we are guilty of breaking the whole law (James 2:10–11). The idea here is that the law cannot be divided into important and less important commands. We must adhere to all of it, realizing that God will judge us according to its principles, which, if kept in the spirit, free us from the penalty of sin: eternal death (verse 12). James concludes by stating that those who show mercy, love and justice (to the poor, in this example) will receive mercy in the judgment.
He gives a second example of the requirement for faith to be demonstrated in action, pointing out the needs of those members of the believing community who are going hungry. It is a form of hypocrisy to hear their pleas, express hope for their eventual nourishment, and yet do nothing practical to help. Faith must be proven by works. Without them faith is dead (verses 14–17). Citing the case of Abraham, James shows that the patriarch’s faith was accompanied by works, and as a result he became known as the friend of God (verse 23). Faith alone is insufficient.
In a third example of belief demonstrated by action, James turns in chapter three to an extended discussion of the need to bridle or control the tongue, a subject he has touched on earlier (James 1:19, 26). He begins by mentioning that teaching is a hazardous occupation, because those who do it are responsible for what they say, and it is easy to say things imperfectly (James 3:1–2). For this reason alone people should not be too ambitious to become teachers. Further, we will all be judged in part by what we say.
The difficulty of controlling the tongue is contrasted with how easily we guide much larger objects. We lead a horse by putting a bit into its mouth and steer a ship with a rudder. Small things can control big objects. But the tongue, which is also small in comparison to the body, is itself very difficult to control. Its effect can be like a small spark in a dry forest. The tongue is likened to a fire that can set nature ablaze. Instead of guiding the body, the tongue often causes it great trouble, ruining the whole person. Humans have tamed or controlled all other creatures, but the tongue is very hard to tame; like a snake, “it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (verse 8).
The paradox, says James, is that we bless God with the tongue but at the same time use it to curse our fellow humans who are made in His image. This is plainly wrong. A spring doesn’t produce both fresh and salt water, nor a fig tree olives, nor a grapevine figs, nor a salt pond fresh water (verses 11–12).
How do humans then manage to bridle the tongue? It requires a special kind of wisdom that has to be acted out in everyday life (verse 13). James shows that it’s only by connection with God that we can attain this wisdom and thus overcome the almost overwhelming inclination to misuse the tongue. Jealousy and selfish ambition find expression through the tongue, but the wisdom that comes from above produces an attitude that is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (verse 17). This prevents “earthly, unspiritual [and] demonic” behavior (verse 15). Peacemaking brings with it an abundance of right action (verse 18).
Yet James’s audience is experiencing quarrels and strife. He asks where such problems originate (James 4:1). His answer is that they come from within the human heart that is frustrated by not getting what it wants—though too often it wants what it ought not to have. To achieve its ends it will murder fellowman or go to war. This approach has no possibility of bringing satisfaction. Even when they do ask God for things, they do not receive them because they are asking from wrong motivations or for wrong things. If they follow the world’s ways to gain their desires, they can only be enemies of God, the equivalent of adulterers in their commitment toward Him (verse 4). James exhorts them to become humble, submit to God, resist the devil—in sum, to change their ways (verses 7–10). One of the problems they have is speaking evil of and judging each other. They are rather to judge themselves and become “doers of the law” (verses 11–12).
James next issues a warning against pursuing materialistic goals as if nothing can go wrong. It is folly to act as if we know what tomorrow will bring. Life itself is ephemeral. We are dependent on God’s mercy and His will and should recognize Him in all our planning (verses 13–15). Knowing the right way and failing to practice it is sin, he says. This is an evil that will not go unpunished.
Similarly, wealthy people are cautioned to get their priorities right. Gold and silver will be worthless one day, because the last days of human civilization are approaching. Then all of the material goods will be of no benefit. Too often they have been gained at the expense of hired workers, but fraud and self-indulgence will have their end.
In such a world the followers of James’s elder Brother are to demonstrate patience until His return. Like the farmer who must wait for his crops to receive seasonal rains and then mature, so they must hold fast to their belief and practice until “the coming of the Lord” (James 5:7–8). There is no time for the petty grumbling and complaining against each other that humans so easily take up. If they need a model of patience in suffering, they should reflect on the history of the prophets. For examples of perseverance in difficult circumstances, James writes, they should consider Job, knowing that God is compassionate and merciful (verses 9–11). Their commitment should be simple and sincere, exemplified by honest communication: “Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (verse 12).
James’s letter closes with the same emphasis on practical expressions of faith: If there are those among the believers who are suffering, they should pray to God about it. If there are those who are happy, they should express praise to God. Those who are ill should call for the elders of the Church and ask for prayer and anointing so that God may heal them. If sin has caused their illness, they will be forgiven; prayer and the confession of sin are essential to healing. The prayers of the righteous for others are very effective. James cites the example of Elijah (1 Kings 17; 18), who prayed that it would not rain. His prayers were so effective that God held back the rain for three and a half years. When the time had passed, he prayed that the rains would come, and they did.
In conclusion, James explains that one of the most valuable things we can do for fellow-followers of the way of God is to bring them back from error. It is a practice that produces great reward. “Let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (verse 20). This conclusion confirms James’s concern for the community of believers he had become a part of and led following the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is an early and powerful letter from one whose life was lived in the shadow of Jesus of Nazareth.