Key verse – James 2:14, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?”
Our theme, “God expects us to practice what we believe and teach practical Christian Living”
What would you think if you took a class on how to take care of your car and the teacher pulled up in a rusted out clunker that backfired before he turned it off? Or how would you respond if you were kept waiting in your doctor’s office because your doctor was taking a smoke break? When we turn to experts, we expect them to practice what they preach. If they don’t, we usually don’t have a lot of confidence in what they say. When you buy a new car it comes with an owner’s manual that helps you in the scheduled maintenance of your vehicle such as when to have your oil changed, tires rotated and so forth. The book of James is packed with and focuses on practical information for daily living, and instructions to us for daily operation in today’s world. The book is addressed to the “twelve tribes which are scattered abroad.” Even though the epistle is general as to its audience, it is relevant and specific, especially for us today. You will see that the writer practiced what he taught!
THE BOOK OF JAMES
The Book of James outlines the faith walk through genuine religion (1:1-27), genuine faith (2:1-3:12) and genuine wisdom (3:13-5:20). The book contains a remarkable parallel to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. James begins in the first chapter by describing the overall traits of the faith walk. In chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3 he discusses social justice and a discourse on faith in action. He then compares and contrasts the difference between worldly and godly wisdom and asks us to turn away from evil and draw close to God. James gives a particularly severe rebuke to the rich who hoard and those who are self-reliant. Finally he ends with encouragement to believers to be patient in suffering, praying and caring for one another and bolstering our faith through fellowship.
It is the ultimate description of the relationship between faith and works. So ingrained in the Mosaic Law and its system of works were the Jewish Christians to whom James wrote that he spent considerable time explaining the difficult truth that no one is justified by the works of the law (Galatians 2:16). He declares to them that even if they try their very best to keep all the various laws and rituals, doing so is impossible, and transgressing the tiniest part of the law made them guilty of all of it (James 2:10) because the law is one entity and breaking one part of it is breaking all of it. One of the key verses of James we can relate to is found in James 3:5, “Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” Some other key verses of James would be:
(1) James 1:2-3, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance”;
(2) James 1:19, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”;
(3) James 2:17-18, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by what I do”;
(4) James 5:16b, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”
JAMES THE APOSTLE
The date of the epistle isn’t debated much. Evidence indicates it is one of the earlier, if not the earliest of the books of the New Testament. The Book of James was probably written perhaps as early as A.D. 45 or between A.D. 48 to 50. The epistle is named for the writer identified in James 1:1. The writer referred to himself as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” Nothing further is said about his credentials or about his relationship with his intended readers. There are several possibilities for the writer of the book of James, such as:
(1) James, a son of Zebedee and brother of John, was one of the first to follow Jesus (Mark 1:19). However, Herod beheaded James early in the church’s development in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-2). James’ death, occurring relatively soon after the death of Stephen, makes it impossible for him to be the writer.
(2) Another disciple of Jesus was also named James. In the Gospels’ lists of disciples, his name appears near the end (Mark 3:16-19). And in those lists he is identified as “James, the son of Alphaeus.” Mark, in his account of the crucifixion, referred to Mary, the mother of “James the Less.” This Mary was the wife of Cleopas, also known as Alphaeus; therefore, James the Less is the “son of Alphaeus.” James’ obscurity in the missionary enterprise of those early years and the lack of reference to him in any leadership position would argue against his being the writer.
(3) Matthew recorded that James was the name of one of Jesus’ half-brothers (Matthew 13:55). Since James’ name occurs first, he was likely the firstborn of Mary and Joseph’s children. James was an unbeliever during the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry (John 7:5). In fact, though Mary understood the uniqueness and mission of her Son (John 2), Jesus’ half-brothers, including James, believed Him to be “beside himself” (Mark 3:10). They thought He was out of his mind, or insane. James’s meeting with Jesus was apparently a transforming experience in James’ life, for he was soon numbered among the apostles and emerged as a leader in the church of Jerusalem (Galatians 1:19; Acts 15:13). Thus, the most probable writer is James, the half-brother of Jesus.
James 1:1, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.”
The author’s self-identification, as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1, relates only to his spiritual position. Unlike Jude (Jude 1:1), James obviously felt no need to indicate his family relations. He apparently was so well known that his readers would need no further identification. Accepting the traditional view of authorship, one may discover from Scripture a modest amount of background information about James. He was the half-brother of Jesus, the child of Joseph and Mary (Galatians 1:19). Because he is mentioned first in the list of the Lord’s brothers, it may be concluded that he was next in age after Jesus (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). James was presumably still a member of the family circle when Jesus and the family moved from Nazareth to Capernaum shortly after the start of the Lord’s public ministry (Matthew 4:13; John 2:12).
During Christ’s ministry, James, along with his brothers and mother, tried to visit Jesus (Matthew 12:46-50; Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21). Perhaps they were concerned about His health because of His strenuous activity and the reports that were circulating (Mark 3:21-31). Until at least seven months before the crucifixion, however, James remained an unbeliever in Jesus’ mission (John 7:3-5). When Jesus rose from the dead, James was the recipient of a special post-resurrection appearance (1 Corinthians 15:7). Was this the occasion of his conversion? Later we find him in the upper room at Jerusalem, along with Mary, His brothers, and the disciples who were waiting for the Holy Spirit as Jesus had promised (Acts 1:14).
As the Jerusalem church became established, James is found in an increasingly prominent role. Paul visited him on his first post-conversion trip to Jerusalem, and this may imply that James himself was an apostle, at least in the wider sense (Galatians 1:18-19). He calls him one of the “pillars,” along with Peter and John (Galatians 2:9). Peter, upon his miraculous release from prison, asked that the news be conveyed specifically to James, as well as to others (Acts 12:17). James emerges as the leader of the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15:121). When certain tradition-minded Jewish Christians came to Antioch, apparently from the church at Jerusalem, Paul said they were “from James,” presumably because they had come from the church where he was the leader (Galatians 2:12). Later, when Paul visited Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey, he made his report to James and the elders (Acts 21:18). This manner of referring to James strongly implies that he was the leader of the Jerusalem congregation. The death of James is recorded by the first-century historian Josephus, who said he was stoned to death on orders of the Sadducees high priest Ananus. Another account of his death is given by Hegesippus, who said James was asked to give his understanding of Jesus. When he said that Jesus was the Son of man, seated at the right hand of God, he was thrown down from the temple, stoned, and then killed with a club.
Aside from the reference to his position as a teacher in James 3:1, the author makes no further direct reference to himself. Yet, few writings in the same space reveal more of the person of its author than this letter. He reveals himself as a vigorous personality, strong and assured in his position. His crisp, concise, authoritative tone commands attention. His brief, pointed sentences, like piercing arrows, invariably hit their mark. A keen observer, he was alert to the operations of nature and repeatedly drew lessons from that area. He was also an attentive observer of human nature. He knows the fashions of the world, and he notes with unerring clearness and humorous shrewdness the characters of men; he sees their superficial goodness, their slothful selfishness, their vulgarity and the mischief of their untamed thoughtlessness. He was a man of strong moral convictions whose deep sense of right compelled him to speak out sharply against wrong wherever he encountered it. His words of rebuke are sharp and incisive, yet he is essentially kindly in disposition. He was openly sympathetic with the poor (James 2:5); his indignation was aroused when they were mistreated (5:4) or scorned and slighted in the Christian assembly (2:2-4). He held that a living faith must manifest itself in a good life (2:17) and in social concern (1:27).
He held deep Christian convictions. He regards God as the ‘eternal changeless One’ from whom come all good gifts (1:17), and under whose providence is every detail of life (4:15). He had strong convictions concerning the power and importance of prayer (1:5; 5:14-18) and the indwelling Word (1:18, 21). He was fully aware of the deep roots of sin in human nature (1:13-15), and saw an uncontrolled tongue as a manifestation of indwelling evil (3:6-8). He had a deep, if reserved, love for Christ, whom he called “the Lord of glory” (2:1). He awaited the return of Christ (5:7). Though a devout Christian, James’ thinking is rooted in a Jewish background. Christian ideas are clothed in Jewish forms. Love for the world is condemned in Old Testament terms as adultery against God (4:4). He never uses the word gospel, but its place is apparently taken by what he calls “the law of liberty” or “the royal law” (2:12, 8). Evil speaking he condemns as putting a slight on the Law (4:11). He naturally reverts to the Old Testament for illustrations, yet the letter does not refer to the observance of Jewish rituals and sacrifices.
James is one of those unsung heroes of the New Testament. While Peter and Paul were, under the Spirit’s direction, “making the headlines,” James ministered consistently and humbly behind the scenes. James began his epistle, referring to himself as a servant. The term is doulos, which means “bond slave.” Although he was numbered with the apostles he did not refer to himself as such. Here is a man whose life was marked by humility. He valued his ministry, not his title. The One he once thought mad was now his Savior and Master.
Additionally, James made no reference to being a blood relative of Jesus. He was not a “name dropper.” For James, the joy of exalting and extolling the Son of God was not to be diluted or polluted by selfish interests of claims. Not only was James a humble man; he was a committed man. James 1:1 declares his commitment to Jesus Christ and reveals his commitment to his people. Many New Testament scholars believe the “twelve tribes” is a reference to those scattered by the persecution that erupted in Jerusalem after the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1-4). If so, James was writing to people he knew and loved. He had pastored them in Jerusalem, prayed for them in their dispersion, and now was writing to them with a shepherd’s concern.
Finally, extra-Biblical information that gives us a spiritual x-ray of James’ heart testifies to his integrity. He earned the name “Old Camel Knees” because his knees were calloused, apparently from long hours spent in prayer. Kneeling on the stone floor of the temple or in his residence, James spent long hours before the throne of grace. In light of James’ selflessness, it is probable that he, like Jesus, prayed mostly for those the Lord had put under his charge rather than for himself. When some were scattered to regions beyond Jerusalem, his burden for them increased all the more. When the ones who remained in Jerusalem were ravaged by poverty and hunger (2 Corinthians 8), he would pray for their needs to be met. When matters of spiritual concern arose, he would seek the mind of God (Acts 15).
THE EPISTLE & THE TARGET AUDIENCE
James’ letter is often called “The Proverbs of the New Testament.” This title is based on the practical nature of the epistle and the exhortation to integrate the truth or Scripture with the demands of living in the world. The Holy Spirit has employed James’ heartfelt words and personal burden to challenge generations of believers throughout church history to “show their faith.” As noted earlier, James addressed his audience as “the twelve tribes which are scatted abroad.” A number of attempts have been made to identify the “twelve tribes.” James could have been addressing Christians in many places who had converted from Judaism during the nearly fifteen years since Christ’s crucifixion. Another possibility is the believers who converted to Christ on the Day of Pentecost. These were Jews who had gathered in Jerusalem from districts and regions throughout the empire for the special celebration (Acts 2). However, the most popular interpretation among conservative scholars is that the “twelve tribes” were believers of Jerusalem who were scattered abroad as mentioned in Acts 8.
Luke noted that everyone from Jerusalem fled, “except the apostles.” The last count of the church’s size in the beginning verses of Acts 4 was about 5,000 men. If Luke were counting heads of households, the church had experienced incredible growth in a very short time. That would make the flight of those in Acts 8 an incredible number of “instant missionaries.” James’ letter, beginning with a reference to trials and difficulties, would strike home to the hearts of those who had suffered for their faith. They had been forced to leave all they knew and loved to preserve their lives and protect their families. Luke related the good news that they went “everywhere preaching the Word!” (Acts 8:4). The term translated “preaching” is the term from which we get our term “evangelism.” Everywhere they went they announced the good news of Jesus Christ. James wrote to them to keep on, to stay true, to hand in there, and to do right.
The letter addressed several themes, with the first chapter serving as an introduction to all that will follow, from “words” to “worldliness.” The book of James has no apparent systematic treatment of the themes, as many of Paul’s letters do. The book does not have a sermon-like structure as Hebrews does. The organization of the content reflects a pastor writing a letter to the people he dearly loved. As he wrote, under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit, he wrote from his heart. The epistle begins with a treatment of subjects that relate to the personal walk of faith, confronting the reality of trials, and temptations. James warned of bitterness against God. He challenged believers to be doers of the Word.
The second part of the book discusses subjects that involve the public testimony of one’s faith. James gave instruction regarding proper treatment of others, both saved and unsaved. He emphasized that speech as well as actions give witness to the genuineness of faith. The third part of the book involves a strong confrontation of sin in the lives of the readers from the influence of the world system. The book concludes with a strong warning that failure to repent of willful sin may lead to a premature death at the disciplining hand of God. This New Testament “book of Proverbs” challenges the Christian to a life of wisdom rather than folly. Digestion of the material and integration of its principles will show themselves in a transformed walk.
We see in the Book of James a challenge to faithful followers of Jesus Christ to not just “talk the talk,” but to “walk the walk.” While our faith walk, to be certain, requires a growth of knowledge about the Word, James exhorts us to not stop there. Many Christians will find this epistle challenging as James presents 60 obligations in only 108 verses. He focuses on the truths of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount and motivates us to act upon what He taught. The epistle also puts to rest the idea that one can become a Christian and yet continue living in sin, exhibiting no fruit of righteousness. Such a “faith,” James declares, is shared by the demons who “believe and tremble” (James 2:19). Yet such a “faith” cannot save because it is not verified by the works that always accompany true saving faith (Ephesians 2:10). Good works are not the cause of salvation, but they are the result of it.
James’ most prominent role, other than writing the epistle, was his involvement in the Jerusalem Council. This meeting, which occurred approximately 20 years after the death and resurrection of Christ, concerned one important agenda item: the place of the Mosaic Law as a rule of life for Gentile Christians. The nature of the discussion in Acts 15, as well as Paul’s stern letter to the Galatians, makes it clear that the Jewish Christians were struggling with the authority of the law in their own lives. James’ role at the council was one of moderator or president. He carefully listened to the evidence, allowed for debate; them summed up the matter and stated his verdict in Acts 15:13-21.
“The speech is Judaic in tone, brief, wise, appeasing and convincing, and was listened to intense silence. In giving his judgment James speaks for the whole Church, and his verdict is masterly in conception and expression. He recognized that he Jews had a claim as well as the Gentiles, and that it would not be fair to give everything to either the one or the other, and so he proposes a middle course.” James had already chided his readers about showing partiality and favoritism in this epistle, written prior to the Jerusalem Council. James’ life was marked by a ready acceptance of all individuals who knew Christ as Savior, whether they were Jew or Gentile, rich or poor. Genuine faith breaks down ethnic and economic barriers. All in Christ are members of the same family and should readily be accepted as such.
James died a martyr’s death, as all the other apostles except John. He refused to recant his faith even though he knew it would cost him his life. Josephus, a respected Jewish historian, reported that James was stoned to death under the orders of Albinus, successor to Festus. Others report that James was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple by those angered at his teaching. “According to a canonical tradition, [he] was cruelly martyred by the Scribes and Pharisees. Finding him at the southeast angle of the temple wall, where the pinnacle of the temple stood, and his foes cast him down into the valley. He fell near the workshop of the fullers who carried on their trade there, and they, finding him still alive, beat him to death with their clubs.”
James 2:18, “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works”
When Dave Thomas died in early 2002, he left behind more than just thousands of Wendy’s restaurants. He also left a legacy of being a practical, hard-working man who was respected for his down-to-earth values. Among the pieces of good advice that have outlived the smiling entrepreneur is his view of what Christians should be doing with their lives. Thomas, who as a youngster was influenced for Christ by his grandmother, said that believers should be “roll-up-your-shirtsleeves” Christians.
In his book “Well Done,” Thomas said, “Roll-up-your-shirtsleeves Christians see Christianity as faith and action. They still make the time to talk with God through prayer, study Scripture with devotion, be super-active in their church, and take their ministry to others to spread the Good Word.” He went on to say they are “anonymous people who may be doing even more good than all the well-known Christians in the world.”
That statement has more meat in it than a Wendy’s triple burger. Thomas knew about hard work in the restaurant business, and he knew it is vital in the spiritual world too. In James 2:17, we read that unless our faith is accompanied by works, our faith is dead. So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work because there’s plenty of it to do for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
A living faith is a working faith.