3 Things You Should Know about James

3 Things You Should Know about James

Written by Gregory R. Lanier |
Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Paul’s argument in Romans (and in Galatians) moves from unbelief where law-keeping fails (Rom. 1:18–3:20), to being declared right before God through faith (Rom 3:21–4:23), to adoption and sanctification that flow from justification (Rom. 5–8). In other words, Paul’s statement about justification by faith rather than works falls in his argument about how one becomes saved. James is making a different argument. He is speaking to those who claim to have faith (James 2:14) but lack any kind of Christian charity to go along with it (James 2:16). Such “faith” is not truly faith if it lacks resulting “works” (James 2:17). It is empty or dead, and thus no different from the bare cognitive assent that even demons exercise (James 2:19).

The epistle written by James kicks off the sub-collection known as the “catholic” or General Epistles, so named because they are addressed not to specific churches or individuals but to (more or less) the entire church. In this case, the letter is penned to the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1), a richly symbolic way of denoting all of God’s people scattered throughout the world. In this article, we’ll consider three things to know about this epistle.

1. Jesus’ Half-Brother Probably Wrote It

Let’s start with authorship. Four men named “James” are contenders. James the brother of John (sons of Zebedee, Matt. 4:21) died too soon to be the author (Acts 12:2). James the son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3) and James the father of Judas (Luke 6:16) are too unknown in the early church to pull off simply identifying as “James” in the epistle. This leaves James the brother of Jesus (Matt. 13:55) as the most plausible contender. This James began as an unbeliever (John 7:5), but through a dramatic encounter with the resurrected Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 15:7), he became a pillar of the early church and possibly an Apostle (Gal. 1:19; 2:9). Why does the identity of the writer matter?

First, James had been transformed by the power of the gospel, yet he does not press his earthly ties to Jesus for clout. He simply refers to himself as a “servant . . . of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). Second, this James makes the pivotal speech at the Jerusalem Council, drawing on Amos 9:11–12 to articulate how the death and resurrection of Christ unites gentiles and Jews under the same banner of faith, not ethnic markers or works of law (Acts 15:13–21). He experienced the gospel and preached the gospel. Third, James inserts direct teachings from his brother Jesus into the letter, such as the poor will inherit the kingdom (James 2:5; Matt. 5:3–5), mourning and laughing (James 4:9; Luke 6:25), exalting the humble (James 4:10; Matt. 23:12), and “yes”/“no” (James 5:12; Matt. 5:34–37). His brother’s gospel has become his gospel.

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