Who wrote it?
The author of this letter is James, also called James the Just, who is thought to be the brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). James was not a believer (John 7:3-5) until after the resurrection (Acts 1:14; 1 Corinthians 15:7; Galatians 1:19). He became the head of the Jerusalem church, and is mentioned first as a pillar of the church (Galatians 2:9).
When(ish) was it written?
James is probably the oldest book of the New Testament, written perhaps as early as AD 45, before the first council of Jerusalem in AD 50. James was martyred in approximately AD 62, according to the historian Josephus.
Why was it written?
Some think that this letter was written in response to an overzealous interpretation of Paul’s teaching regarding faith. This extreme view, called antinomianism, held that through faith in Christ one is completely free from all Old Testament law, all legalism, all secular law, and all the morality of a society. James is directed to Jewish Christians scattered among all the nations (James 1:1). Martin Luther, who detested this letter and called it “the epistle of straw,” failed to recognize that James’ teaching on works complemented—not contradicted—Paul’s teaching on faith. While Paul’s teachings concentrate on our justification with God, James’ teachings concentrate on the works that exemplify that justification. James was writing to Jews to encourage them to continue growing in this new Christian faith. James emphasizes that good actions will naturally flow from those who are filled with the Spirit, and questions whether someone may or may not have a saving faith if the fruits of the Spirit cannot be seen, much as Paul describes in Galatians 5:22-23.
Some Key Verses
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
– James 1:2-3
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.
– James 1:19
So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
– James 2:17-18
So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!
– James 3:5
The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
– James 5:16
A Quick Summary
James outlines the faith walk through genuine religion (James 1:1-27), genuine faith (James 2:1-3:12) and genuine wisdom (James 3:13-5:20). This 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.
Old Testament Ties
James is the ultimate description of the relationship between faith and works. The Jewish Christians to whom James wrote were so ingrained in the Mosaic Law 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.
What does this mean?
We see in 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 letter 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 letter 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 shudder” (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.
Take a few minutes to read aloud the Scripture from James 1:22-25, 3:13-18, 4:1-10, Romans 7:21-25. What verses or ideas stand out to you from this passage? What questions do you have? What “next step” are you considering as a result of your interaction with God’s Word?
When was the last time you took a look at your “spiritual mirror,” to take an honest assessment of your life through the lens of God’s perfect law? What steps can you take to add a more regular rhythm of honest spiritual self examination? How can your Life Group help with this?
Does your focus tend to be more toward the fact that you are a deeply flawed sinner, or that you’ve been set free by Jesus? Knowing that both of these things are true, in those moments when you are burdened with sin, are you able to “preach the Gospel to yourself?” Why is this important? What might this look like?
How can your life be a Gospel example to the people you interact with on a regular basis? Is there evidence of good conduct? Gentleness? Purity? Do you live without pretense? How does the Gospel itself motivate and empower you toward the pursuit of Godly living?