Introduction

The Epistle of James is the first in a group of epistles customarily called General Epistles, which includes James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude. They are designated as general or “catholic” epistles in the sense that they are universal, not being addressed to any particular individual or church, but to the church as a whole.

The problem of authorship is a major one. There is no question that James wrote the Epistle of James, but which James was the author? Some find at least four men by the name of James in the New Testament. I believe that you can find three who are clearly identified:

1. James, the brother of John and one of the sons of Zebedee. These two men were called “sons of thunder” by our Lord (see Mark 3:17). He was slain by Herod who at the same time put Simon Peter into prison (see Acts 12:1–2).

2. James, the son of Alphaeus, called “James the less” (see Mark 15:40). He is mentioned in the list of apostles, but very little is known concerning him. I automatically dismiss him as the author of this epistle.

3. James, the Lord’s brother. He was a son of Mary and of Joseph, which made him a half brother of the Lord Jesus. In Matthew 13:55 we read: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?” In the beginning, the Lord’s brethren did not believe in Him at all, but the time came when James became head of the church at Jerusalem.

In Acts 15 James seems to have presided over that great council in Jerusalem. At least he made the summation and brought the council to a decision under the leading of the Holy Spirit. I believe it was this James whom Paul referred to in Galatians 2:9, “And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.” This James is the man whom we believe to be the author of this epistle.

This epistle was written about A.D. 45–50. There have been those who have said that James wrote his epistle to combat the teachings of Paul; they argue that James emphasizes works while Paul emphasizes faith. However, the earliest of Paul’s epistles, 1 Thessalonians, was written about A.D. 52–56. Therefore, even Paul’s first epistle was not written until after the Epistle of James, which was the first book of the New Testament to be written.

It is clear that James’ theme is not works, but faith—the same as Paul’s theme, but James emphasizes what faith produces. Both James and Paul speak a great deal of faith and works. They give us the two aspects of justification by faith, both of which are clear in the writings of Paul:

1. Faith—we are not justified by works. Paul wrote, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). And he also wrote, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us …” (Titus 3:5).

2. Works—we are justified for works. In Titus 3:8 Paul says, “This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works….” In Ephesians 2:10 he tells us, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”

Faith is the root of salvation—Paul emphasizes that; works are the fruit of salvation—that is the thing James emphasizes. Or, we can express it this way: Faith is the cause of salvation, and works are the result of salvation.

When Paul says that works will not save you, he is talking about the works of the Law. When James emphasizes that works are essential, he is talking about works of faith, not works of the Law. He said, “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” (James 2:18). God looks down and sees your heart, and He knows whether you believe or not—that is justification by faith. But your neighbor next door doesn’t see your heart; he can only judge by your works, the fruit of your faith.

The following are what I consider to be the two key verses of this epistle. “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22). “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 2:20).

The Epistle of James deals with the ethics of Christianity, not doctrine. He is really going to bear down on the practical, but he will not get away from the subject of faith. James was evidently a very practical individual. Tradition says that he was given the name “Old Camel Knees” because he spent so much time in prayer.

Due to its practical nature, this epistle has been compared to the Book of Proverbs as well as to the Sermon on the Mount. James argues that justification by faith is demonstrated by works; it must be poured into the test tube of works (ch. 1–2), of words (ch. 3), of worldliness (ch. 4), and of a warning to the rich (ch. 5).

(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 53: James. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)

Poems & Quotes

James 1:1-3

"Someone in the Middle Ages said, 'God nothing does, nor suffers to be done, but what we would ourselves, if we could see through all events of things as well as He.'"
          –Dr. J. Vernon McGee

James 1:3-13

Is there no other way, Oh God,
Except through sorrow, pain and loss?
To stamp Christ's likeness on my soul,
No other way except the cross?
And then a voice stills all my soul,
That stilled the waves of Galilee,
Cans't thou not bear the furnace
If midst the flames I walk with thee?
I bore the cross, I know its weight,
I drank the cup I hold for thee.
Cans't thou not follow where I lead?
I'll give thee strength, lean hard on Me.
          –Author unknown

James 1:19-22

The Gospel is written a chapter a day
By deeds that you do and by words that you say.
Men read what you say, whether faithless or true.
Say, what is the Gospel according to you?
          –Author unknown

James 1:22-25

It's easier to preach than to practice;
It's easier to say than to do.
Most sermons are heard by the many,
But taken to heart by the few.
          –Author unknown

James 3:1-4

If your lips would keep from slips,
Five things to observe with care:
To whom you speak, of whom you speak,
And how, and when, and where.
          –Author unknown

"The boneless tongue, so small and weak,
Can crush and kill," declared the Greek.
"The tongue destroys a greater horde,"
The Turk asserts, "than does the sword."
The Persian proverb wisely saith,
"A lengthy tongue, an early death."
Or sometimes takes this form instead,
"Don't let your tongue cut off your head."
"The tongue can speak a word whose speed,"
say the Chinese, "outstrips the steed."
While Arab sages this impart;
"The tongue's great storehouse is the heart."
From Hebrew wit the maxim sprung,
"Though feet should slip, ne'er let the tongue."
The sacred writer crowns the whole,
"Who keeps the tongue, doth keep his soul."
          –From Charles Spurgeon's "Salt Cellars"

James 3:14—4:4

Life on earth would not be worth much if every source of irritation were removed. Yet most of us rebel against the things that irritate us, and count as heavy loss what ought to be rich gain. We are told that the oyster is wiser; that when an irritating object, like a bit of sand, gets under the mantle of his shell, he simply covers it with the most precious part of his being and makes of it a pearl. The irritation that it was causing is stopped by encrusting it with the pearly formation. A true pearl is therefore simply a VICTORY over irritation. Every irritation that gets into our lives today is an opportunity for pearl culture. The more irritations the devil flings at us, the more pearls we may have. We need only to welcome them and cover them completely with love, that most precious part of us, and the irritation will be smothered out as the pearl comes into being. What a store of pearls we may have, if we will!
          –Dr. Richard H. Seume (as quoted by Dr. Lehman Strauss in his book, James Your Brother)

James 4:5-17

“Tell God all that is in your heart, as one unloads one's heart, its pleasures and its pains, to a dear friend. Tell Him your troubles, that He may comfort you; tell Him your joys, that He may sober them; tell Him your longings, that He may purify them; tell Him your dislikes, that He may help you to conquer them; talk to Him of your temptations, that He may shield you from them; show Him the wounds of your heart, that He may heal them; lay bare your indifference to good, your depraved tastes for evil, your instability. Tell Him how self-love makes you unjust to others, how vanity tempts you to be insincere, how pride disguises you to yourself as to others. If you thus pour out all your weaknesses, needs, troubles, there will be no lack of what to say. You will never exhaust the subject. It is continually being renewed. People who have no secrets from each other never want for subjects of conversation. They do not weigh their words, for there is nothing to be held back; neither do they seek for something to say. They talk out of the abundance of the heart, without consideration, just what they think. Blessed are they who attain to such familiar, unreserved intercourse with God.”
          –Fenelon

"I carry this in the back of my Bible, everywhere I go, and every now and then I get it out and read it. This was written by Fenelon, a great saint and mystic of the Middle Ages."
         –Dr. J. Vernon McGee