Exhortations to faithfulness prove always prescient for Christians. James felt compelled to provide many such important exhortations to his fellow Jewish Christians throughout the Roman Empire who would listen; we cherish his instruction as found in the letter of James.
The letter of James is the twentieth book in modern editions of the New Testament; it is often categorized as one of the “catholic” or universal letters or epistles. Its author calls himself James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ (James 1:1). While some have suggested he is James the son of Zebedee or the other Apostle James, the author does not identify himself as an apostle. The author of James is most likely James the Lord’s brother, also known as James the Just. He became a believer in Jesus in His resurrection; he gained prominence as an elder in the church of Jerusalem, considered a “pillar” of the faith by Paul, and highly influential in the church in Jerusalem, and therefore has the authority and standing among Jewish Christians to write such a letter (cf. Acts 1:14, 12:17, 15:13, 21:18-25, 1 Corinthians 15:7, Galatians 1:19, 2:9, 2:12, Jude 1:1). Scholars are divided regarding whether James wrote the letter or not; Martin Luther infamously cast aspersions on the canonicity of James, no doubt on account of the discomfort caused by James 2:14-26 and its indictment of faith only. We have no reason to doubt the letter’s authenticity. James wrote to the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” and his language provides no evidence of appropriation for another audience (James 1:1); therefore, he wrote a general letter to all Christians of Jewish descent throughout the Roman Empire. Since the same Gospel was preached before Jews and Gentiles, and much of James’ exhortations are consistent with all Jesus had taught, we recognize the validity of James’ instruction for believers among the nations as well as for those among the Jews (cf. Galatians 2:6-9, 3:28). James the Lord’s brother had already gained prominence by 44 (cf. Acts 12:17); the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus testified regarding his death in 62 by unjust trial and stoning at the hands of the Sanhedrin under Hanan the High Priest after the Roman procurator Porcius Festus died but before his successor Lucceius Albinus could arrive (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20.9). The Letter of James was therefore most likely written between 44 and 62; it may be the first, and most assuredly among the first, of the books of the New Testament to be written. James wrote to Jewish Christians around the world to exhort them toward greater faithfulness according to the teachings of the Lord Jesus.
Any attempts to categorize or provide much of a contextual frame in James’ letter prove highly speculative. After a standard epistolary introduction (James 1:1), James exhorted Jewish Christians to be thankful for trials and their subsequent development of faith and to pray to God for wisdom in full faith, not doubting (James 1:2-8). The rich ought to humble themselves in their transience and the poor to trust in their exaltation in Christ; those who endure trial are blessed; God does not tempt anyone, but all are tempted by their desires; every good gift comes from the Father, in whom there is no variation, and who brought believers forth by the word of truth (James 1:9-18). Christians must be quick to hear and slow to speak and anger; man’s anger does not produce God’s righteousness; believers must both hear and do the Word, for those who hear only are self-deceived; religion is only as good as control of the tongue; pure and undefiled religion demands visitation of the marginalized and avoidance of sin (James 1:19-27).
James continued by exhorting Christians to show no partiality when practicing the faith: in the assembly the rich were being honored, while the poor were set aside, which is transgression; those who transgress in one aspect of the Law are guilty of the whole of it; judgment is merciless to the unmerciful (James 2:1-13). James proceeded to thoroughly demonstrate how faith without works is dead: Christians cannot just speak a thing and assume it is done; even demons believe God is one and they shudder; Abraham justified by works as well as faith; believers are not justified by faith alone; as body apart from spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26).
James warned Christians about teaching: they will endure a stricter judgment (James 3:1). Any who might bridle the tongue is a mature believer, but no man can fully tame the tongue; James set forth the dangers of the tongue and asked how believers could bless God but curse man with the same tongue (James 3:2-12). James contrasted the worldly, demonic wisdom of selfish ambition and jealousy with the godly wisdom from above of patience and gentleness, exalting true peacemaking (James 3:13-18).
James condemned the Christians for their quarreling on account of their passions: they desire, they ask for things to spend on their passions, they do not receive the spiritual blessings for which they have not asked; they are adulterous, trying to be friends with the world and God at the same time (James 4:1-4). Instead God would have believers draw near to Him, to resist the Devil, and to humble themselves (James 4:5-10). Christians ought not judge one another, but leave judgment to God (James 4:11-12). Christians should not boast in arrogance, for their lives are but a vapor; they ought to qualify all they plan in terms of God’s will; to know the right thing and to not do it is sin (James 4:13-17).
James ripped into the wealthy that oppress the poor and warned about imminent judgment (James 5:1-6). Christians suffering do well to remain patient and not grumble against each other, deriving strength from the example of Job and the prophets, and to not swear (James 5:7-12). James provided exhortation to those in specific circumstances: the suffering should pray, the happy should sing, and the sick should call for anointing by the elders and to be healed by their prayer (James 5:13-15). Believers should confess their sins to each other and pray for each other; Elijah proved a powerful example of the power of prayer (James 5:16-18; cf. 1 Kings 17:1, 18:1, 41-46). James concluded his letter with encouragement to bring back lapsed Christians, for those who do so save their souls and cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20).
For generations Christians have drawn much strength and edification from the letter of James. All can grasp his practical wisdom and do well to apply its message to their lives. May we all heed the Word of truth and find salvation in God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry