Tag Archives: James

James – the Man, the Book

There are three, possibly four, men named James in the New Testament. One was the brother of the Lord, along with Joseph (Joses), Judas (Jude), and Simon (Matthew 13.55; Mark 6.3). Two were apostles: James, the brother of John (Matthew 4.21-22, 10.2, Mark 3.17, Luke 5.1-10) who was killed by Herod (Acts 12.2) and James, the son of Alphaeus, also called James the Less (Matthew 10.3, Mark 3.18, Luke 6.15).

Interestingly, “James” was not the actual name of these men; some say it was Iames but most scholars agree that in Aramaic it was something closer to Ya’akov, a fairly common name which usually becomes Jacob. It has undergone metamorphosis, becoming James in English, Santiago in Spanish, and Jacques in French. Because the translators of the King James version of the Bible wanted to get the king’s approval for the translation, they translated at least three of the men named Ya’akov into James.

James was a leader of the church in Jerusalem. In Acts 1.13-14, it is simply noted that the apostles gathered with some women and Jesus’ mother and brothers. However, after several of Paul’s journeys, he mentions James in a leadership context, especially in Acts 15.13 where James states the position of the church regarding Gentiles.

James wrote his letter to early Jewish Christians living in Gentile communities outside of Palestine in about AD 49, prior to the Jerusalem Council held in 50. His purpose was to expose hypocrisy among believers and teach proper Christian behavior. It also expresses his concern for persecuted Christians who were once part of the Jerusalem church.

Notice the three themes of the letter: hardship, perseverance, and wisdom (James 1.2-3). He doesn’t say, if you face trials, but when you face them. He assumes that we will all have trials and can profit from them. The point is not to be happy when you face pain, but to have a positive and confident outlook. Consider it all joy because of what trials produce in our lives. James tells us to turn our hardships into times of learning. Trials teach us endurance and endurance perfects us, makes us complete.



Wisdom from Above

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”              James 1.5-8

Wisdom is an important biblical word. It means more than intellectual knowledge. Wisdom is less “knowing what” than “knowing how.” It implies a skill in living that is passed down from parent to child and has its ultimate source in God.

Sources of Wisdom

We are reminded of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament – Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes – which declare, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1.7).

On the one hand, Proverbs urges one to be always “turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding” (Proverbs 2.2); and on the other hand, reminding us, “For the LORD gives wisdom, and from His mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2.6).

Asking for wisdom reminds us of the most famous wise man of all, Solomon, who when offered the choice of wealth, honor, or wisdom, chose wisdom: “Give Your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern Your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this Your great people?” (1 Kings 3.9).

Wisdom and Doubt

God gives wisdom generously. The Greek word, haplos, is used only this one time in the New Testament. It means God gives “straightforwardly,” with no strings attached. Unlike the “double-minded man” (v.8), God is not in doubt about His giving. He has no ulterior motives. He gives without hesitation and regard to our worthiness. He gives “to all.” Unlike people (James 2.1-4), God has no favorites. He also gives “without finding fault.” He is no reluctant, critical giver but a generous father (Matthew 7.7-11). He is eager to give wisdom to those who ask.

Just as God has no doubt about His giving, the one who asks must ask in faith, not doubting. Faith here is not a general term for Christian belief but refers to the certainty that the request will be fulfilled. As Christians we are always to pray that His will be done, and we can be confident that it is always His will to grant us more wisdom.

To doubt that God will hear our requests for wisdom is to doubt His generosity and character. When we do that we become like a windblown and tempest tossed sea, a common metaphor in ancient literature for indecision.

The word “double-minded” (dipsychos, literally “double-souled”) is an interesting word and found only here in the New Testament. It conveys the thought that a person has enough faith to ask for wisdom but not enough to be confident he will receive it. He is like the plowman in Luke 9.26 who puts his hand to the plow and instead of looking forward, looks back. Such an indecisive and fickle person cannot be trusted to be consistent in anything he does. His instability is in stark contrast to the perseverance or strong consistency produced by enduring trial (v.4).

The Ever-Present Need for Wisdom

Wisdom is one gift needed by Christians throughout the ages. It is particularly needed in our time as the forces of cultural secularization rail against the church. We need wisdom to face this assault with “pure joy” (v. 2). Such wisdom doesn’t come naturally from our own abilities and efforts – it’s God’s gift alone, and we must regularly and faithfully seek His guidance.

– Bill


“Pure and undefiled religion…”

That’s the title of the new series of lessons on the Book of James we’ll be studying on Sunday mornings in Imperial and Monday evenings in Holyoke.

Who was James?

James was a common name among first-century Jews so it is not surprising that there are several men named James in the New Testament:

  1. James the son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve, who was killed by Herod Agrippa I in AD 44 (Mark 1.19; 3.17; Acts 12.2);
  2. James the son of Alphaeus, another of the twelve apostles (Mark 3.18; Matthew 10.3; Luke 6.15; Acts 1.13);
  3. James, the Lord’s brother, and a “pillar” in the Jerusalem church (Mark 6.3; Matthew 13.55; 1 Corinthians 15.7; Galatians 1.19; 2.9, 12; Acts 12.17; 15.13-31; 21.18; Jude 1);
  4. James the younger, the son of Mary, one of the women at the foot of the cross (Mark 15.40; Matthew 27.56);
  5. James, the father of the apostle Jude (Luke 6.16; Acts 1.13).

As just noted, James Zebedee, the apostle and brother of John, was killed by Herod in AD 44. Three of the remaining four men named James are obscure figures who are seldom mentioned and of whose activity we have no knowledge.

The Brother of Jesus

The author of this book was probably the eldest of the four brothers of Jesus named in Mark 6.3. While Jesus was wandering throughout Galilee and Judea proclaiming the Kingdom of God, most of His family thought He was a bit crazy (Mark 3.20-21). John 7.5 states plainly that “not even His brothers were believing in Him.” That all changed with the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15.7). Though not specifically named, Luke records that Jesus’ mother and brothers were among the believers waiting in Jerusalem prior to Pentecost (Acts 1.14). Later, Paul refers to him as one of the “pillars” of the church in Jerusalem. And it is James who takes a leading role in diffusing the Gentile controversy in Acts 15.

Date of Writing

Most scholars set the date of James’s writing around AD 45 prior to Paul’s missionary journeys and before many Gentiles had become Christians. If that date is correct, then James is possibly the earliest New Testament book to have been written.

Nature of the Book

Though named the “epistle of James,” except for the opening greeting, the book bears little resemblance to a letter; there is no personal information about the recipients and no farewell message or salutation. Instead, the book has more of the characteristics of a sermon or a collection of brief exhortations collected from several sermons. The major emphases of the book are:

Faith and action

For James, faith is more than an expressed belief, it is something practical to be lived and demonstrated in acts of obedience and mercy (2.22-25), endurance (5.11), and prayer (5.17-18).

Wisdom and prayer

“Wisdom” is the essential theme of the book. It’s not speculative wisdom, but wisdom for practical living. It addresses a person’s ability to discern right from wrong, giving moral and spiritual insight in dealing with the issues and challenges of daily living. James encourages Christians to pray for wisdom because that’s what is needed to remain steadfast in times of trial and testing (1.2-8).

Rich and poor

James was concerned about the careless attitude of some wealthy Christians toward poor Christians. These two classes are first mentioned in 1.9-11, where he maintains that God lifts up the poor but brings down the rich. As the letter progresses he becomes more critical of the rich – he deplores their prejudice toward those less fortunate (2.4) and their oppression of the poor (2.6). The essence of “true religion,” as he sees it, is taking care of “widows and orphans in their distress.”

Controlling the tongue

James is exceedingly concerned about the use and abuse of speech. Emphatically, he declares that Christians “must be quick to listen, but slow to speak and slow to become angry (1.19). They are to keep their tongues under control, otherwise their “religion is worthless” (1.26). In his view, the tongue is as destructive as fire. He calls upon brethren to put their words into practice (1.22-24; 2.12) and not to speak evil of one another (4.11-12). And he encourages them to be people of their word – a simple, consistent, truthful “yes” when they mean yes and “no” when they mean no (5.12).

In this short book of five chapters, James outlines a practical approach to Christianity, giving us vigorous and vital instructions on how to put our faith into action – pure and undefiled religion is…

– Bill