James covers many topics in a relatively short space. In chapter 1, James urges believers to keep to their faith even while things aren’t going their way. In fact, Christians should be glad because these trials will test and refine them. If they should need help, God will provide them with the strength to overcome, as He has already supplied every good gift. Doubt is unhelpful to the believer. Then, James stresses the importance of being not just hearers of the faith, but also doers. Christians must live out the Gospel and not deceive themselves.
In James 2, James warns against showing partiality to others. The poor man should be treated as the rich man, for the Lord has chosen the meek to rule the strong. This is encapsulated in the saying ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’, which gets at the heart of God’s law, and true freedom for the oppressed. James then goes back to addressing the importance of works in the Christian life. If someone believes, but does not act, then they possess a dead faith. Even the demons believe in God. Our actions prove our faith, and show what we believe.
James 3 cautions against the tongue, a destructive part of the body. He calls it so because it is difficult to control, and the words that come from our tongues can poison our spiritual well-being and those of others. Those who bless the Lord should not also curse people. Instead, they should seek wisdom and purity.
James then turns his attention to the dangers of worldliness presented in James 4. Our passions are the sources of many sins we commit. Because we want what is contrary to God’s plan for us, we do not get what we ask for. When we cannot obtain something, we seek to get it elsewhere and fulfill the desires of the flesh. Instead, we need to seek God first and humble ourselves before Him. Speaking evil against others turns one into a wrongful judge, who puts their commands before those of God’s. Additionally, Christians should not be presumptuous about what will happen to them in the future, for it is the Lord’s will that decides. James closes chapter 4 with a strong charge: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”
James 5 opens with a warning to the rich. As Jesus warned, their treasures will one day fail them when judgment comes. James then loops back around to chapter 1, and stresses that Christians should be patient in their suffering, for the Lord, the righteous judge, is always near. James references Job as one who persevered through his afflictions and found favor with the Lord. The letter continues with a call to focus on the Lord in any situation, whether prayer when lowly or singing praise when joyful, and then closes by calling on Christians to rescue those who fall away from their faith.
Who wrote it?
James is believed to be Jesus’s brother (Galatians 1:19 mentions him). In John 7:5, it is stated that Jesus’s brothers did not believe Him at first as to His identity as Lord. Nevertheless, James is counted among Jesus’s followers by the latter part of Acts, even being an important voice in the early church among Paul and Peter (Acts 15).
Who was it written to?
The letter of James has a relatively broad scope compared to Paul’s letters. In James 1:1, James simply addresses the letter to the ‘twelve tribes in the Dispersion’. This brings to mind the twelve tribes of Israel in the Old Testament. The Dispersion refers to the fact that they were now spread out over the land.
When was it written?
As a bare minimum, we know that James died in 62 A.D., meaning that the book could not have been written later than that. Furthermore, there are a few theological developments evident in later books of the NT that are not yet referenced in James that would seem like odd omissions if the book was written later on (for example, there was a large controversy on if circumcision, a Jewish practice, was needed for Christians. This took place in the late 40s). The book of James, then, was most likely written in the 40s.
Why was it written?
James was written to remind the church how to live as a follower of Christ, and it also warned them of some ways they SHOULDN’T live. In general, James is a book about Christian conduct.
How does James apply to me?
James is personally one of my favorite books because it’s practical and covers so much in a short space. If someone wants to know what the Christian life looks like when acted out, you might show them this book. We must, however, recognize the proper relationship between faith and actions lest we de-emphasize one too much and focus exclusively on the other. The New Testament repeatedly attests to the sufficiency of faith alone for salvation (John 3:16, John 11:25-26, Romans 3:28). Perhaps the best example of this is given at the end of the Gospel of Luke, where one of the criminals crucified with Jesus believes in Him at the last minute, and Jesus responds that he will go to Heaven with Him, despite the fact that the criminal said he was convicted justly and did not have the opportunity to do any good work other than believe that Jesus was truly the son of God up on that cross. Thus, we see that faith is indeed enough. Yet, the vast number of commands both before, during, and after the life of Jesus are not given for nothing. Growing faith includes a growing desire to do the will of God, and that flows outward in the form of good works, whether it is helping the less fortunate, taming our sinful impulses, and/or spreading the Gospel to others. As James 2:14-26 says, our actions prove our faith, but the inverse is also true. Our inaction can prove that our faith is only superficial. Either way, submission to Jesus Christ changes us from the inside out and saves us from our prior life of sin.
As for all posts in this series, a book introduction in a good study Bible will provide more information than listed here. The ESV Study Bible is one recommendation.
The Bible Project video on James
“Is Salvation by Faith Alone, or Faith Plus Works?” from GotQuestions.org
Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. Copyright 1984. Released under new license, CC-BY-SA 3.0