As we begin our study of the book of James, we need to understand whom the author of this book was, to whom he spoke, when he spoke, and the content of his message. The study of this book brings with it the question of its authorship. Scholars of the millennia pondered and studied over this. A few possibilities arose. Greater still than this question is what upon what James taught – faith.
Over the centuries, Bible scholars pondered and debated over who the author of this book was. In James 1:1, the author identifies himself as James, yet there were several Christian men named James during the first century identified in the Bible. Some scholars proposed this James to be the son of Zebedee, Jesus’ disciple. Yet this James died by sword (Acts 12:1-2) between 41 and 44 AD which was before anyone wrote New Testament literature. The other disciple named James, the son of Alphaeus, of him little is known. Mark mentioned him in Mark 15:40. Because biblical writers said so little about this James, scholars consider it unlikely he wrote the letter of James. James, the son of Alphaeus, would have felt the need to better identify himself with more than what he wrote in 1:1 if he was the letter writer since people knew so little about him.
The most likely candidate to be the teacher/speaker of this letter was the brother of Jesus, James the Just. Though he was not a follower of Jesus during His lifetime, he would have known Jesus and His teachings well. Jesus appeared to James, His brother, and the other apostles. Paul stated this in 1 Corinthians 15:7. From study of the Bible, readers know James, Jesus’ brother, stayed in Jerusalem while the twelve disciples traveled to tell the Gospel. This James became the leader of the Jerusalem church, sent out delegates (Galatians 2:12), presided over the Jerusalem council (Acts 15), and advised Paul about collections (Acts 21). He continued to lead the Jerusalem church until after Paul’s arrest in 57AD. We know this because the High Priest, Annas, arraigned James the Just on charges of breaking the law in 62 AD. For this charge, the judicial committee condemned him and had him stoned. Because of these facts, James the Just probably was the originator of these teachings to the church.
Since the original teacher of the book of James was just a carpenter’s son, he would not have received the education necessary to write this letter in the eloquent Greek in which scholars found it. He would have spoken Aramaic and Semitic Greek. Who then compiled and wrote the book of James? Scholars suspect an editor collected James’ teachings and improved the Greek to circulate it as a general letter. The need for this arose most likely during and after the Jewish Revolt of 66-70AD. During the time of the Jewish Revolt, persecution occurred through Roman Rule - Nero and other Roman leaders - and through the struggle for control by the high priestly families. The Jewish Christians of Jerusalem and the Christians of the diaspora needed to hear again James’ messages of hope, living out faith, and the wicked do not inherit the kingdom of God. The original date of these speeches/sermons/teachings by James appears to be the mid-40s when significant economic need arose within Jerusalem. During that time severe famines occurred and the people of Jerusalem, being non-farmers, suffered most. One other factor attributes the dating of James’ sermons and teachings to pre-Pauline writings. James does not mention the Jerusalem council in his speeches. What occurred at the council was significant. If it had occurred before James’ teachings, he would have included it in his writings. Paul felt the councils decisions were significant and included them in his writings. Because of this, the dating of James’ teachings was before Paul’s epistles.
We read above James was the head of the church in Jerusalem. This church consisted of house churches, each led by an elder over whom James led. The members of the church met to worship and take part in the Lord’s Supper. Perhaps they continued to enjoy the Jewish festivals, too. The deacons of the church collected contributions and gave them to the poor.
Poor people comprised the members of the church. Peter David said these church members came from five groups of people – 1. People from outside Jerusalem who could not do their kind of work in the city because they were farmers, fishermen, etc; 2. Pilgrims from outside Jerusalem who did not return home; 3. People who went to Jerusalem to learn about Christianity; 4. Older people who went to die in Jerusalem; 4. People within Jerusalem who came upon difficult times due to the famines; and 5. Jewish bosses fired their employees because they were Christians. Because the Jerusalem Christians were most often poor, James equated the poor as righteous and the rich as non-believers in his teachings.
During this time, Roman procurators were evil and took bribes. They despised Jews. Jewish zealots arose and attacked Romans and Roman sympathizers. This created animosity between Romans and Jews. Added to this, the high priestly families battled for control of their office. The Jews felt they did not have legitimate power and just the descendants of Zadok (descended from Aaron) should be high priests. While this occurred, higher priests oppressed lower priests. Battles occurred within the Jewish leadership and between them and the Romans. Besides these, the high priestly families oppressed the poor. This means that the members of the Christian church of Jerusalem experienced extreme hardship – food, safety, shelter, government, and religious persecution. The people of the church expected Jesus to return imminently and wondered why He had not yet returned. They might have felt disheartened about that, too.
The above-mentioned circumstances of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem help us understand why James emphasized a theology of suffering. The Christians of Jerusalem understood this emphasis because as Jews they had suffered at the hands of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and other nations. In their time, they suffered at the hands of Romans, zealot Jews, and the wealthier Jews. Suffering was not new to them. What James taught them consisted in how to live out a life of faith in action while suffering. James considered the suffering/trials an opportunity for a Christian to grow in virtue – endurance, patience, faith, and joy. He taught them to look to the future for their eventual and eternal hope in Christ Jesus, what many within society did not have because they were unbelievers. James, throughout his teachings, dealt with faith, testing, wisdom, poverty, wealth, virtues, actions, and words.
This book is set as short, exhortatory teachings. James used many imperatives. Biblical scholars call them paranetic teachings. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament, such as Proverbs, is similar to James’ style. The book of James is a book of moral and ethical teachings for those who trust in Jesus Christ. It balances life between the spiritual and physical; one’s spiritual life should impact one’s physical life through moral and ethical actions and words within society.
James spoke specifically to the Jewish Christian. The editor of his teachings addressed the book to every Christian of the diaspora. Upon reading and studying the book of James, one realizes it truly is a book for every Christian of the world, not just for the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem, James’ original audience.
Identification of Writer and Greetings.
With verse one, the book of James introduced a broad greeting to Christians dispersed abroad. He said, “James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.” [NASB] James identified himself as a bondservant. A bondservant was a person who chose to give up his or her will to another person. A bondservant served at the whim of another person. In this introduction, James gave up his rights to his will to serve Christ in advancing His cause – the Gospel - to every person he encountered. Little did he know that his greeting and serving Christ would reach people for almost 2000 years, people spread across the whole world, not just the Roman Empire. James might not have realized his teachings would reach people around the world, including Christians scattered and living among Gentiles outside Israel. What foresight the editor of James’ teachings had when he addressed this book to Christians of the diaspora.
Wisdom and Faith.
James’ first teaching in this book told Christians to “consider if all joy” when faced with trials (vs. 2). The Christians of Jerusalem faced many trials as noted in the earlier sections. They were poor, faced famine and hunger, and lived under the oppression of Roman and Jewish rulers. The Christians of Jerusalem encountered these and other trials yet James told them to consider all of it joy.
Why should the Christians count these trials as joyful? With verses three and four, James explained the answer. He said, “The testing of your faith produces endurance.” The Greek word used here for “knowing” is similar to the Hebrew word for “know.” The Greek word is ginosko. It means to learn to know, to get knowledge of perceiving. This tells James’ listeners and readers that trials are not a once-off thing, but will continue to be with them. Get used to them and learn from them. Do not let them make you have a bad day and life. Instead, realize that this testing of your faith can teach you and produce endurance within you. This testing will prove and strengthen your faith. Luke also described endurance as “standing firm in faith” (Luke 21:19). As you come to know trials and that they will come against you, you become more prepared for them and they will not affect you as much. You will grow and learn to rely upon the strength of Jesus Christ given through His Holy Spirit. You can take heart from His example while He lived on earth. These can make you strong and endure. They can make you constant and have unswerving faith even in the greatest of trials. That is endurance, standing strong in the faith with the strength of Jesus Christ so you grow to perfection to mirror Christ.
James said this endurance would have a perfect result, so aim to grow strong in your faith. What is that perfect result? The perfect result is perfection and completion, lacking in nothing. The word “perfect” in this verse comes from the Greek word teleios. It means wanting nothing to be complete, full grown, and mature. To be a full-grown Christian - a mature Christian, a person must go through trials and learn to stand strong and endure them with the strength Jesus gives. When the trials of life are over, God will find the person who stood strong to be perfect and complete through Jesus Christ. That person will be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Notice this maturity comes from applying one’s faith to one’s actions and words in life. You will come to understand James spoke on this theme of faith and defined it throughout his book. Faith requires action. Christians must live out their faith in witness to their testimonies, each person's assent to God that he or she is a believer. In that way, a person may be complete and perfect, found without blemish or defect, faultless. The salvation Jesus bought for each person, when lived out in the person’s life, will show his or her righteousness and wholeness/completeness through Christ. That person will shown no lack in anything. He or she will be sinless, blameless, and perfect/complete because of Jesus’ saving blood and the person’s enacting of his or her faith in daily life.
James continued this line of thought with verses five through eight. He said,
But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. [NASB]
James said that each Christian has resources available to help stand up to trials and temptations. He said each person who realizes they need help can ask for wisdom and God will give it generously and without reproach. The Greek word for “wisdom” is sophia. It includes knowledge from intelligence, understanding, and logic. Later in James 3:17, James described the wisdom from heaven as being pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere. With the wisdom from God, when a person knows he or she needs it to stand strong against trials, that person can acquire endurance and be perfect and complete. God does not leave His child to stand on his or her own, but offers His wisdom and strength upon that person’s asking. James said God would give generously and without reproach. He will not hold back anything, but give what is necessary for His child to be strong. God will not criticize or admonish a person for being weak. He will recognize that person’s admittance of weakness and reliance upon Him, give the wisdom the person needs to stand firm – stand with endurance, and grow into perfection and completion in Him. Jesus taught His followers to ask from God. He said in Matthew 7:7-8, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you shall find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” [NASB]
James said a person must ask in faith (vs. 6). For James, faith must be lived out in one’s life. If a person said they had faith, but it did not show in their actions and words, he questioned whether faith truly existed in the person (James 2:14-26). If a person did not ask with faith that meant the person did not trust God existed or that Jesus was the Messiah through whom people have salvation into God’s kingdom. A person with no faith would not receive wisdom because it requires faith in God to receive wisdom from God. Something cannot come from nothing. If you do not acknowledge God, then you cannot receive from God. If you are a true Christian, a person who believes God exists, created and rules the world, and sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to save us through His death, then your faith would trust when you asked for wisdom from God. You would believe you received wisdom from Him and would act upon the wisdom He gave. That is faith. It does not doubt. Doubting means to be at variance within one’s self. The person would not trust him or herself to believe truly in something or someone. That doubting of self could make one hesitate and eventually drive one mad. Jesus taught about faith and doubt in Mathew 21:21-22 when he spoke of the mountain and the fig tree. In this verse, James said faith does not doubt. A person who doubts is tossed about like the surf of the sea or the wind. When that happens, things are not peaceful and a person does not receive peace. A person without faith is tossed about by every idea or teaching not knowing which to believe and never trusting any. Yet when he or she is faced with trials, he or she has nothing to draw on to combat the trials and stand strong, to survive. Matthew gave an example of this when he described Peter walking on the water to Jesus. Peter was okay until he saw the winds whipping the water, then he was afraid and doubted. For Peter, this trial helped him grow stronger in his faith in Jesus Christ. He became the rock upon which Christ built His church. Peter became a martyr for his faith in Jesus Christ. He could have failed with this trial and allowed his doubts to overwhelm him and pull him under the waves. Instead, Peter allowed the trials to make him stronger as he called out to Jesus and trusted in Him. Once again, James’ theme of “faith requires action” played out here.
James said about the doubting man in verse seven he should not expect he would receive anything from the Lord because he did not have faith. Faith is a gift from God, but for it to be faith for you, you must act upon the gift God gave you. Faith requires action. A person without faith cannot receive what he or she asks from God or what God promises to His children. James gave a final definition of a doubter in verse eight when he called the doubter a double-minded man. “Double-minded” comes from the Greek work dipsuchos and means wavering, uncertain, and divided. The person who is double-minded is unstable, inconstant, and restless in all his ways, James said. The person’s actions and words would show he or she doubted and did not believe. People would know they could not trust what the person said. The doubter would be in inner turmoil because he or she did not know what to believe or on whom to call when he or she needed help. The surf of the sea and wind would toss the doubter. James told the Jerusalem Christians to believe in God, endure with Him, ask for His strength and do not doubt, then they would grow toward perfection and completion. They would become more Christlike with each trial. Faith, true faith, must be lived out in a person’s actions and words. It is not just a head knowledge, but something one trusts in upon which to anchor his or her life. Other people will see a person’s faith by the way he or she lives.
Poverty and Riches.
With James 1:9-11, another of James’ themes occurs. James often contrasted the poor and rich. For him the poor represented Christians (understandable since most Jerusalem Christians were poor) and the rich were unbelievers (though he alluded to rich Christians twice in his teachings in 2:2 and 4:13). James said in these verses,
But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation because like flowering grass he will pass away. For the sin rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away. [NASB]
In verses nine and ten, James described two different groups of people. “Brother” of verse nine comes from the Greek word adelphos, which means fellow believer. “Rich man” of verse ten comes from the Greek word plousios and is a metaphor used to refer to the wicked or unrighteous person. How do we know James meant an unrighteous person in verse ten? We should consider other places in his writings when he spoke of rich people. In James 1:10-11, 2:5-6, & 5:1, he used the word plousios for rich man. Yet in 2:2 & 4:13, when he described wealthy people, he referred to them as the wealthy church members. James realizes the Christian faith is for wealthy and poor alike. Yet when he is comparing the believer to unbeliever, he uses the term “rich man,” plousios, to refer to unbelievers. So the “rich man” of verses ten and eleven are unbelievers. For the Jerusalem Christians of the first century, this metaphor made sense because it was the norm for their time – poor people were Christians and rich people were unbelievers.
With the above understanding, we can now understand these verses better. Verse nine said the poor man is to glory in his high position. Most often a poor person did not hold a position of high stature in society. Here James spoke of the person’s relationship with Jesus Christ. Remember “poor man” refers to Christians. Though the poor person did not have many possessions and little wealth that person could take pride and exult because he or she had a relationship with Christ and would claim an inheritance with Jesus Christ as a child of God. Though the person lived with diminished physical means, hr or she had a greater wealth - salvation through Jesus - and could proclaim it and hold on to it as their hope, comfort, and glory.
On the other side, the rich man, James said, was to “glory in his humiliation.” Since “rich men” in James’ writing meant unbeliever, what did he mean by this statement? Peter Davids said that the rich will glory in their stature and riches, but will find those things and themselves humbled. The rich person will have nothing to save him or her from eternal death. In these two verses, James meant the rich would be brought low and the poor exalted. Death equalizes people. What a person acquires while alive cannot be taken to the grave. Those things will rust, rot, or be used by another person. What the rich person glories in while alive has no merit to help him or her after death. Verse ten can be read as an irony, Harold Songer said. The rich then will be like flowering grass and will pass away. They will perish. One Corinthians 7:31b and 1 Peter 1:24 agree with this thought. The first says, “The form of this world is passing away.” The latter says, “For all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of the grass. The grass withers and the flower falls off.” Peter quoted Isaiah 40:6ff in this verse. It was not an unknown thought. The unbeliever would find at the end of his or her life that his or her life was like flowers and grass. They flourished while alive, but would end with eternal death. The unbeliever would die because he did not have a relationship with God through belief in Jesus Christ and so did not gain eternal life with Him. The possessions of the rich person could not give eternal life, just gratification during physical life on earth.
James emphasized this with 1:11. Even in the midst of his pursuits, the rich man would find he met with scorching winds. His life would meet with trials and he would have no recourse to ask for strength or wisdom. An unbeliever who sins can experience God’s judgment during his or her earthly lifetime, as James expressed in verse eleven, or after his or her life when he or she died in unbelief and did not get eternal life in God’s kingdom. The rich person’s beauty and appearance, literally his good appearance, shapeliness, beauty, countenance, and appearance presented by one’s wealth and prosperity will wither and fall away. The rich person would be destroyed – completely abolished – because he or she did not believe in Jesus Christ and, by such, receive an inheritance in God’s kingdom with Him. “The rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away,” James said. His journey and purpose in life will fade away and become worth nothing because of his unbelief. The only glory of which the rich person could boast or take pride was in his or her earthly attainments. Yet they were ephemeral and did not give the rich person life after death, unlike the poor man’s glory of eternal life with Jesus Christ.
James dedicated his teachings to encouraging and training the Christians of Jerusalem and later of the diaspora to stand strong in their faith in Jesus Christ. He compared the life of a believer with an unbeliever to encourage them to stand firm with endurance and to convince hearers to become Christians. James taught that each trial brought with it virtue and would lead to perfection and completeness in Christ. He taught that the believer could stand strong and exult knowing that even in the midst of trials he or she would win the victory of life in God’s kingdom as His child. James encouraged Christians to stand strong and mature. To stand strong, he told them they must put into action and words their faith in God. True faith results in actions and words testifying to that faith. Those actions continue to grow a person and make him or her stronger. By the time the person reaches God’s kingdom, he or she will be perfect and complete, just as Christ is.
James’ emphasis in this lesson is relevant today. Are we standing strong in the midst of our trials? Are we making a stand that says we are born-again believers, children of God, shown to people by our actions and words? Alternatively, are we unsure, doubting, and tossed about by the wild surf of the sea of life just staying afloat with our heads above water? If the latter describes you, you must ask yourself two questions. What keeps you from trusting in the power of Jesus Christ to save you in every part of your life? Or, why have you not given your life to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?
Today we each need to confront ourselves with the reality of God and Jesus Christ. Do you believe in Him? Do you want to believe in Him? God is ready to forgive all your sins and accept you as His child. What do you have to do to be saved? Accept Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Believe that He died on the cross as the complete sacrifice for your sins. Confess your sins to God receiving His forgiveness.
What will you do today about faith? James confronts us where we live.
Peter Davids, James: A Good News commentary. (Harper and Row: San Francisco, 1983), p. xv.
Davids, p. xvii.
Davids, p. xxiii.
Thayer and Smith, The New American Standard New Testament Greek Lexicon, 1999 (http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/ginosko.html).
 Ibid. (http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/teleios.html).
Davids, pp. 22-23.
Davids, pp. 22-23.
 Harold, Songer, “James,” The Broadman Bible Commentary. (Broadman Press: Nashville, 1972), p. 109.