The Epistle of James
An Expository Study
In spite of our admiration for Martin Luther, we cannot agree with his remarks about the Epistle of James; he called it “an epistle of straw.” He also felt that there was a conflict between the Apostle Paul and James. Luther’s deliverance from the ignorance and bondage of Romanism resulted from his acceptance of the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith apart from works. Consequently, any suggestion of salvation by works to Luther was unbiblical. His understanding of the Epistle of James was very unfortunate; nevertheless, it indicates that there are difficult passages in these short chapters which demand spiritual and mental concentration.
James, like some of the prophets during Old Testament times, found most of his illustrations in nature. He wrote of winds, fire, water, fountains, ships, beasts, birds, trees, and even more complex matters in nature. James was more of a naturalist than he was a theologian.
While we may think of his epistle as the most Jewish of all in our New Testament, its major theme is practical, very practical Christianity. It should also be understood that James possessed a keen sense of rectitude and equity, and this led him to denounce any social injustice, especially as he detected this among Christians.
Today there are few chapters of the New Testament as neglected as the five chapters of the Epistle of James. May we in humility of heart and with reliance upon the Holy Spirit of God engage in an expository study of these neglected chapters.
Inasmuch as there were, in those early apostolic years, three men associated with the Lord Jesus who bore the name James, we must find out if possible which one of these wrote this epistle. There was James, the son of Zebedee (Matthew 10:2), and James, the son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:3). Both of these men were disciples of the Lord and their names appear in the lists of the Twelve. And, of course, there was “James, the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19).
James, the son of Zebedee, was beheaded by the wicked Herod Agrippa 1 quite early in the Church dispensation (Acts 12:1-3). James, the son of Alphaeus, must have been a shy, backward man. His name is not associated with any gospel event. He made very little impression upon the inspired narrative of the life of Christ. It is impossible to imagine that this James was the writer of such a forceful, authoritative epistle. These conclusions leave us no alternative but to accept James, the Lord’s brother, as the author of this epistle.
Let us trace some of the history of this man. He is mentioned along with his brothers and sisters in Matthew 13:55-56. When the Lord Jesus was teaching in a synagogue near His home, questions were asked: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brethren James and Joseph, and Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us?” Here are definitely mentioned all the members of the family with the exception of Joseph, Mary’s husband. Mary probably had been widowed before this event.
At the Feast of Tabernacles a few months before the death of our Lord, we read, “Neither did His brethren believe on Him” (John 7:5). It seems incredible that those who had been born of the same mother and raised in the same home did not discern in Him the true Messiah of Israel, the Saviour of the world.
Calvary must have been a lonely place for Mary. None of her children were with her; none of the boys, none of the girls. What a divided family! Poor Mary! In that dark hour she was abandoned by all her own. No wonder the Lord entrusted her to John, His cousin by nature.
The next scene in which the “Holy Family” plays a part is found in Acts 1:14. After the resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus, the saints were gathered in an upper room, and we read, “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brethren.” What a change has been effected in the hearts of Mary’s children! All are now around their mother. What a comfort to her the presence and intimacy of her own must have been!
Is it possible for us to discover what accomplished this great change? Perhaps the answer is to be found in 1 Corinthians 15:7. In seeking to establish the fact of the resurrection, the Apostle Paul says, “After that, He was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all He was seen of me also, as one born out of due time.” James, through the unveiling of the risen and triumphant Christ, was completely, transformed, and apparently through him all the other members of the family. Henceforth, James was probably the greatest leader of the early Church in Jerusalem.
As we see James through Paul’s eyes (Galatians 2:9-16), and hear him speak at the Church Counsel at Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21), and notice the superior place he occupies among the elders of the Jewish Church, it is not at all difficult to believe that we have found the author of the Epistle of James.
The Time of Writing
According to the point of time indicated in Acts 11:27-30, it would appear that the Church in Antioch was formed some fourteen years after Pentecost. It was during this time that the gospel spread from the Hebrew world to the Hellenistic world and finally to the Gentile world. The predominantly Gentile Church formed in Antioch of Syria eventually became the center of world-wide missionary effort.
During these fourteen years the Christians were mostly Jewish in origin, from the twelve tribes in the land. They still attended the synagogue and temple (Acts 3:1-11; 9:20; 13:5; 14:1-17; 17:10; etc.) and held Jewish ritual in high regard (Acts 21:17-26). All this was so evident to the Gentile authorities that they considered Christianity as a new sect of Judaism. There was not then the complete severence of Christianity from Judaism that became very obvious later on. The content of the Epistle of James indicates that the Lord’s brother, actually half-brother, wrote his message to the people of God living during this transitory period. When this setting of the Epistle of James is taken into consideration, its contents become much more understandable.
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1). Obviously, James did not consider any of the tribes of Israel as lost. He apparently considered the Jews of his day as representing all Israel.
Jeremiah wrote in such a manner as to manifest that in the restoration of God’s people from the seventy years’ captivity in Babylon, the northern kingdom, as well as the southern kingdom of Judah, would be returned to the Land of Promise (Jeremiah 29:10; 3-31). It was such statements in Jeremiah’s prophecy that convinced Daniel that the seventy years of divine discipline were at an end (Daniel 9:2). In his intercession Daniel included all Israel that were near and that were afar off (Daniel 9:7).
The contingent that returned with Ezra from the captivity was not only made up of the men from Judah and Benjamin but also from Levi, priests and Levites. In the long list of those who returned, some from Bethel and Ai (Ezra 2:28) — cities of the northern kingdom — are enrolled. At the time of the great revival in the days of Hezekiah, people came from the northern tribes in large numbers and many of them remained with Judah (2 Chronicles 30-31). Asher was known as a separate tribe in New Testament times (Luke 2:36-38). James assumed that many from all the tribes of Israel had accepted Christ as Messiah and Saviour as he addressed himself to them.
The message of James is not presented in a systematic structure. In these chapters there is no lengthy argumentation, as you find in the writings of the Apostle Paul. The many parts of the epistle are not linked together with adverbs such as “furthermore,” “nevertheless,” etc. James does not develop a subject from its simplest form to its most complex; rather, he writes briefly on many different themes and subjects. This he does in a treachent, concise manner. Consequently, his work cannot be readily analysed as, for example, most of the writings of the apostle to the uncircumcision. Notwithstanding, here is an outline of the contents of the Epistle of James which may prove helpful to some.
1. 1. Comfort for the tried and tempted (vv. 1-15)
2. The nature of God (vv. 16-17)
3. The Word of God (vv. 18-27)
1. Partiality and Prejudice (vv. 1-13)
2. Faith and Works (vv. 14-26)
1. The nobility of the tongue and the indictment against the tongue (vv. 1-12)
2. Wisdom and Peace (vv. 13-18)
1. Selfishness and Conflict (vv. 1-12)
2. The Brevity of Life and the Will of God (vv. 13-17)
1. Divine Retribution and Divine Recompence (vv. 1-7)
2. The Example of Job and the Exercise of the Christian (Vv. 8-9)
3. Prayer and Spiritual Prosperity (vv. 10-20)