The General Epistles were written by James, Peter, John, and Jude. This series will draw from these epistles. Since the Epistle of James is the first in the order of these works, his epistle will be the first to be considered. The Apostle James was the physical brother of Christ. James was not one of the original Apostles but assumed a dominant role in the Church later. Mary had at least six other children in addition to Jesus. This is illustrated in Mark 6:3: “Is not this [Christ] the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.” So there were four brothers and at least two sisters—six in all.
In Acts 15, the dominant role of James is seen in verses 13-22. “The death of James reportedly was at the order of the high priest Ananus, and was either by stoning (according to Flavius Josephus, first century historian of the Jews) or by being cast down from the Temple tower (after Hegesippus, early Christian writer, quoted by the third-century Christian historian Eusebius). These accounts of James’s death (about A.D. 66), are not confirmed in the New Testament.” (from Holman Bible Dictionary. Copyright © 1991 by Holman Bible Publishers. All rights reserved.)
There is much information in the Epistle of James regarding Christian living. But this epistle, along with a few others, created a serious problem for Martin Luther. Luther’s belief, based on his interpretation of Paul’s writings, was that faith alone justifies. There is, therefore, no need to keep the Law of God. Luther, like many today, confused Jewish works of the law with the Ten Commandments. He failed to realize that the Ten Commandments were in effect long before the time of Moses, and were not abrogated by the death of Christ. For a more detailed explanation, please refer to the series on the Ten Commandments located on our website. The Epistle of James completely contradicts Luther’s teaching on law and justification.
One of the first things James addresses in his epistle is that Christians will face various temptations of one kind or another. The purpose of these temptations is to build character, and building character requires patience. James wrote: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing” (Jas. 1:2-4). Holy righteous character results from withstanding temptations and overcoming the pulls of the flesh. The Apostle Paul explained, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13, NKJV). The phrase “make the way of escape” obscures the meaning. The correct translation for these words is “present the end [outcome],” that is, God promises to give those who are tempted the foresight to see the end result of withstanding the temptation, thus helping them to resist and escape it.
Christian living requires wisdom—wisdom to make the right choices at the right time, thereby avoiding evil. Since few men have the wisdom to know exactly what to do in every circumstance, James advises Christians to ask God for wisdom. But this must be done with faith. One who doubts will receive nothing from the Lord (Jas. 1:5-8). Wisdom is important and the Bible states: “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding” (Prov. 4:7). Wisdom gives one the ability to put facts together and to make the right choice. Understanding gives discernment so that one can evaluate the facts accurately.
Christian living includes recognizing that both rich and poor have equal status in the eyes of God. This is why James states: “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away. For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: so also shall the rich man fade away in his ways” (Jas. 1:9-11). A problem often found in the rich is their contempt for the poor. They do not realize that their wealth is short-lived. For them it lasts only as long as they live.
Jesus gave a parable to illustrate this principle:
And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:15-21)
Resisting temptation is a major part of living up to what God requires of Christians. James gives more detail regarding this problem. Satan is the tempter and is ever ready to tempt the righteous (Matt. 4:3, 1 Thess. 3:5). Satan plays upon the weaknesses in human nature. Jesus described human nature when He said: ” . . . That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:20-22). This is why James wrote: “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (Jas. 1:13 -15). The man or woman who resists temptation makes great strides in overcoming. “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him” (v. 12).
Control of both the tongue and of anger are other important requirements for Christians. “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls” (Jas. 1:19 -21). Anger and the misuse of the tongue often go hand in hand, and while it is easy to profess Christianity, to put it to practice requires a conscious effort. This is why the Apostle James emphasized the need to be more than hearers of the word. He gave a specific example of what happens to one who is only a listener.
But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. (Jas 1:22-26)
Christian living includes the willingness to help those in need. In the following Scripture James refers to those who most need help—the most vulnerable members of society—orphans and widows. James writes: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (Jas. 1:27 ). These are the things Christians should be thinking about and applying in their lives.
We will recall that James said that God shows no preference toward the rich. But humans often do. James minces no words when he speaks of this practice.
My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? (Jas. 2:1-4)
Many abuses take place because people show respect of persons. While men of rank should be respected, manifesting respect of persons generally goes far beyond that. James 2:5 emphasizes how God has not called the rich of the world, but rather the poor. “Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?”
Greek culture reeked with intellectual vanity. The scholarly classified people according to their rationality. The philosophers had little regard for the common man. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians telling them the need to recognize the true importance of their calling:
For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence. (1 Cor. 1:26-29)
James rebuked those who likewise disparaged the poor. “But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats? Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called? If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors” (Jas. 2:6-9). Those who practice respect of persons have little love for their neighbors. Respecters of persons seek to curry favor to gain an advantage from the rich. Since a poor neighbor generally cannot render any advantages, there is little regard for him.
In the Epistle of James, Chapter Two, James explained a matter that presented a serious problem for Martin Luther. Luther was convinced that a man is justified by faith alone, and works were meaningless. But James wrote that faith alone is a dead faith. In life Luther had become so repulsed by the various works and sacraments required by the church that he failed to differentiate between the works that men required from those that God required. The Apostle James made this plain when he stated that one who manifests a respect of persons commits sin. Sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). James wrote: “But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are [convicted] of the law as transgressors. For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas. 2:9-10). James adds: “For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law” (v. 11). And to which law does James refer? The Ten Commandments, of course!
How did Martin Luther respond to this truth? He said that the Epistle of James, along with a few other New Testament books, were uninspired. The fact is: When Luther could not explain these Scriptures, he simply disregarded the book of James as an “epistle of straw.” He could not accept the fact that faith without obedience to God’s Law is a dead faith.
Here is how James went on to make the truth crystal clear:
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? (Jas. 2:14-20)
James explained further: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works and by works was faith made perfect? . . . For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (Jas. 2:21 -22, 26). In following Luther, many professing Christians today do not argue that we should show reverence to God and love to our neighbor, but when it comes to the fourth and seventh commandments, they draw the line. These commandments require Sabbath keeping and forbid divorce and remarriage under most circumstances.
James explained that Christian living requires obedience to the Ten Commandments, and while these cannot save anyone, they are the requirements for living faith. Christ died to pay the penalty for the sins of mankind (1 Tim. 1:15 ). Would it make sense to think that when we repent and stop sinning, we are allowed to go back to doing what brought upon us the penalty of death in the first place? Repentance and baptism are for sins that are past (Rom. 3:25 ). They do not grant license to continue in sin thereafter. Yet, today, the majority of professing Christians reject God’s Law.