The General Epistle of James

Written: early date AD 45-49

Late date after AD 55

Objective: To teach wisdom

Key Word: Work

Key Verse: James 2:20 “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”


By way of introduction to the main text, it is to be noted that, as a Jew, James invoked a style of writing associated with Wisdom Literature. The objective of Wisdom Literature was to teach people how to live a good life before God. Many people may know what to do, but not how.
“How can I be holy?”
“How can I be patient?”
“How can I be loving?”
“How do I have faith?”
Wisdom Literature was designed to answer the question, “How?”

Wisdom, to a Jew, was not something abstract, but was practical and understandable. True wisdom teaches a person how to live a life devoted to righteousness in order to please the Lord.
James has much to say about the Moral Law of God, and the place of good works in the life of the believer.

James knew that true saving faith will always work itself out in terms of gospel obedience. The book of James tells Christians to put on their spiritual coveralls, and get to work, for faith without works is dead, meaning, faith without works is inoperative. Also, faith without good works is a poor witness before a watching world.

Because of his own strong emphasis on faith in the life of the believer, Martin Luther struggled with the message of James. He called the epistle to James a “strawy” epistle, and relegated it to the index of his Bible translation.

But James was not wrong to emphasis good works. They are a balance to those who say they have faith. “You say you have faith?” says James. “Great, show me!” James teaches the Church that good works can be performed because the Lord has come to set the soul free from the ruling principle of sin and death. In Christ, Christians have true freedom. We have freedom to serve the Lord, and freedom to help others.

The freedom of the Christian is rooted in Royal Liberty. It is a freedom empowered and sustained by the Spirit of God. Because of Christ there is freedom to overcome temptation, control the use of the tongue, engage in effective prayer, and have a vital testimony before the world. The narrative begins with a salutation.

     1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.

The name James, in the Hebrew, is Jacob, which means “supplanter,” or, “heel catcher.” It can be translated as, “one who trips up.” The son of Isaac “took his brother, Esau, by the heel in the womb” (Hos. 12:3), and tried to trip him up, symbolically, anticipating a life of ambition, and trying to get ahead of others.

Despite negative connotations, the name Jacob, or James, remained a popular name among Jews.
Jesus called two men named James to be His disciples. There was James the son of Zebedee, whose brother was John, and James the son of Alpheus, whose brother was Judas, not Iscariot (Matt. 10:3). However, the author of this epistle was another James, the brother of Christ Himself, according to the flesh (Gal. 1:19).

The Bible plainly teaches that Mary and Joseph had other children after the birth of Christ. Several passages of the Bible refer to them (Matt. 12:46, 47; 13:55; Mark 3:31, 32; Luke 8:19, 20; 1 Cor. 9:5). The names of four brothers of Jesus are given. There was James, Joses (Joseph), Simon, and Judas (Mark 13:55). The brethren of Christ did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah until after His resurrection (John 7:5) when the Lord appeared to James (1 Cor. 15:7).
James went on to become a leader at the church in Jerusalem (Acts 14:24; Gal. 2: 9, 24).

While he had known Christ after the flesh, James humbly submits before His sovereign, and refers to himself as a “servant” of God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ. In time, James became known as “James the Just”, and, “Old Camel Knees,” because he knelt so often in prayer. James prayed, like his elder Brother.

As the half-brother of Christ, according to the flesh, as the servant of Jesus, by way of the new birth, James writes to “the twelve tribes.” The theological concept finds support in this passage that the Church is the true spiritual Israel of God, and the true spiritual seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:7).

When we hear the word Israel, we immediately think of a fix geographical location in the Middle East. When we hear the term “Jew,” we immediately think of a literal, physical, ethnic people in Israel. However, the Bible teaches us that a spiritual connotation is associated with the word “Israel,” and the “seed” of Abraham.

In Romans 9 we read, “For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel. 7 Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, in Isaac shall thy seed be called” (Rom. 9:6-7).
So there is a spiritual Israel. There is a spiritual seed consisting of all those who have the faith of Abraham.

This theological truth is important to understand, for we read that James writes, “to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad.” If we do not understand the spiritual connotation in Scripture, we will think of the twelve tribes as a reference to national Israel, and miss the fact that, spiritually, the reference is to the Church, the true “Israel” of God. There is nothing in this epistle that is distinct for any physical ethnic race, or for any special period of time. Each statement finds fulfillment, and application, in the church in every era.

    2 My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers [various] temptations;

The word for “temptation” is peirasmos (pi-ras-mos’), and refers to putting something to a test for the purpose of approval.

In a person’s life a little rain must fall, and into the life of every believer there will be a variety of tests for the purpose of divine approval.

We might not like these tests, but the Lord knows what is best.

So there might be financial pressures, health issues, unmerited criticism, and broken relationships.

When the various trials come, the proper Christian response is to be one of joy, or calm delight.
This mental attitude can only be cultivated by the intake of Bible doctrine into the soul on a consistent basis, which will then fortify the heart in the hour of testing. When the various trials come, there is something that God wants us to know.

   3 Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.

The divine intent of God in allowing adversity to come to the believer is to cultivate patience, which is cheerful endurance, and consistency in faith. Godly patience is needed in life, because it was impatience that moved Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit, and then give the fruit to Adam, and he did eat.

Young people are often impatient in life. They want to be older. They want to grow up fast. They want to do whatever mom and dad are doing. And young adults are often impatient. There is so much to see and do. They want what they want, and they want it NOW!

Abraham and Sarah were impatient, and devised a way to have a child apart from God’s known will. The result was an inappropriate relationship with Hagar, and the birth of Ishmael.

Rebekah and Jacob were impatient for the family blessing, and schemed to take it by deceit from Isaac.

Samson was impatient to get married, and fell in love with Delilah, a Philistine woman. He lost his head to lust, and then lost his life.

Impatience is the ultimate motivating factor in many sins of the saints. So God tries our faith, so that patience might be perfected.

     4 But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.

The word for perfect speaks of maturity. It is a tremendous spiritual victory when the heart no longer craves for the things of this world, but only for God.

“More love to Thee,
O Christ, more love to Thee!
Hear Thou the prayer I make
on bended knee.

This is my earnest plea:
More love, O Christ, to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!

Once earthly joy I craved,
sought peace and rest;
Now Thee alone I seek,
give what is best.

This all my prayer shall be:
More love, O Christ to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!

Let sorrow do its work,
come grief or pain;
Sweet are Thy messengers,
sweet their refrain,

When they can sing with me:
More love, O Christ, to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!

Then shall my latest breath
whisper Thy praise;
This be the parting cry
my heart shall raise;

This still its prayer shall be:
More love, O Christ to Thee;
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!”

In 1856 Elizabeth P. Prentiss wrote these words during a period of illness, but kept them to herself. When she showed them to her husband 13 years later, he encouraged her to publish them. How¬ard Doane saw the resulting pamphlet, and wrote music for the words. Patience had its perfect work in her life.

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