LIVING FAITH – Introduction to the epistle of James


Introduction to the epistle of James

How many of you grew up in a home where one of your siblings was an overachieving, almost perfect, everybody loved, won every award, favorite brother or sister? Then you all can picture what it was like to grow up in the home of Joseph and Mary, where the oldest child, your older stepbrother was Jesus Christ. The person who did face that home life is the author of the book we are launching today–our study of the book of James. Open your Bibles to James 1:1.

This will be a study of the earliest epistle of the New Testament. It is so early, this letter almost forms a transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament. James’ letter is directed at Christians from a Jewish heritage, but has incredible application for every believer then and today. Read James 1:1, “James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.”

Verse 1 introduces the first letter written in your New Testament, and what you find in verse 1 is the author, the audience, and acknowledgments. But what James unfolds for you as a believer is some of the most practical everyday truth you will read in the New Testament. At one moment, James will seem like the most gifted surgeon, as he cuts away your sinful cancer. And then he’ll act as a lifeguard, rescuing you from drowning in your own bad decisions. Then he’ll be the best counselor, exposing your errant thinking. Then he functions as a discipler, modeling for you how you can live for Christ.

James is going to show us how to live out your faith every single hour, in every single situation, relationship, trial, test, and difficulty in your life. James will sting you with the antiseptic and comfort you with the band-aid. James will move you to run the marathon, but also provide the cup of cold water along the way. James is based upon sound theology, but he is not as interested in instruction as he is with exhortation–not as much on learning as living, not as much directed at the head, as he is focused on the hands. Not as much doctrine, as doing.

Greek thinking was this–if you learn it, you’ve got it. Hebrew thinking was this–if you live it, you’ve got it. And James is total Hebrew thinking–biblical thinking, the Lord’s will. The great challenge for you and I in this study will not be learning but living. Not apprehending, but applying. Not understanding, but using, Not hearing, but heeding. You had better get ready–James is going to grab your everyday lifestyle and squeeze you so hard, you’ll have to start living for Christ 24/7, Monday through Sunday.

James will shake marginal people over the screen of Scripture until you’re exposed as a real believer, or proven to be a make believer. James will pour gasoline on the average Christian and light them on fire for Christ. Let me introduce the author James to you, then address the audience to whom James writes, and finally the acknowledgments he gives. Like looking down from Mount Everest at 29,032 feet, or glancing out the window of your long airline flight, today you’ll be motivated with an exhortation overview.

I love the fact that James can trump everyone. Brian Regan jokes about this. Let’s say you are one of the twelve astronauts who’ve walked on the moon. You’re at a party, and guys are boasting about all kinds of things. I’ve climbed K2, I wrestled a crocodile, I survived being stranded on an island for three years. But the ex-astronaut, can let everyone boast their brains out–he can just stand there and stir his coffee, because when they are all done, all he has to say is, “I walked on the moon.” TRUMP!

Well, back in the first century, believers might say, “I saw Jesus heal the leper . . . I saw Him when He started His ministry . . . I saw Him resurrected from the dead.” But James could say, “I grew up with Jesus in the same home.” TRUMP! Let’s look at . . .

#1  The AUTHOR

Verse 1a, “James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” There are several men named James in the New Testament, but only two are worthy of consideration. First, James, the son of Zebedee, the brother of John. One of the three inner circle disciples, he was the first disciple who suffered martyrdom under Herod before James was written. When you read Acts 12:2, “And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword.” This occurred too early, so James the son of Zebedee can’t be considered for the authorship of the book of James.

Second, that leaves James, the half-brother of our Lord. Not only the half-brother of our Lord, but the natural son of Mary and Joseph–he called them Mom and Dad. Though there are religious traditions which deny that Mary had other children, the Bible is clear they did–you know, Matthew 13:53 to 57. James is indicated here as the Lord’s half-brother. Our Lord, born of God and Mary, but James the second born, from Mary and Joseph. Matthew 13:55 to 57, “’Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things?’ 57And they took offense at Him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.’”

Most conservative scholars believe this is the James who wrote this epistle. Most believe the letter James was written between 44 and 49 A.D, making James the earliest date for any of the 27 New Testament books–this is the first! But what is fascinating is that even though James had grown up with Jesus for nearly 30 years, James and his brothers (and we assume his sisters, too) had at first rejected our Lord and did not see him as Messiah, let alone the God-man. According to John 7:5, “For not even his brothers were believing in Him.”

Maybe they were glad when “the perfect one” decided to leave home. Can you hear the sisters? “He’s Mama’s favorite–it’s like she worships him or something. He always came when Dad called. Jesus always washed his hands before eating. Mom used to say to me, ‘James, why can’t you be more like Jesus?’.” They didn’t believe. Mark 3:21 ESV, “And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’” Literally–He’s beside Himself–out of his mind. Even at the cross in John 19:25, Mary is listed as present, but none of his brothers.

But then Acts 1:14 gives the New Testament reader a shock. It describes the upper room, and all the Christ following believers present and praying, when it says, “These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.” James is there! Say what? What happened between John 7:5, when “even His brothers were not believing Him” and Acts 1:14, when James is present, praying and believing in Christ? Do you know?

What happened was 1 Corinthians 15:7–speaking of the Lord’s post-resurrection appearances, the Bible tells us, “He appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” James saw His risen from the dead, glorified, half-brother, Lord and God! What changed James? What transformed him from unbeliever to believer? From “He’s crazy to “He’s the Christ”? The Lord’s resurrection from the dead. Can you picture that moment–the moment when Christ appeared to His brother James? The awesome worship, the overwhelming answers. “That’s why You were so perfect. That’s why You were always praying. That’s why Mary seemed to worship You. That’s why. Oh Lord, my God–I get it now.” What an affirmation of Christ! James lived with Him.

We know James was married from 1 Corinthians 9:5, “Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” And Church history repeatedly affirms that James became known as James the Just, because he was considered very devout, lived very righteously and was very fair. He was so trusted, he rose to leadership in the first church ever established, in Jerusalem. In Acts 12:17, when Peter was miraculously delivered from prison, they immediately reported the event specifically to James. “But Peter . . . described to them how the Lord had led him out of the prison. And he said, ‘Report these things to James and the brethren.’”

James rose to such responsibility and prominence in the Early Church that in Acts 15:12 to 21, he was the one who presided over the Jerusalem council when they were determining whether a Gentile could be considered saved without becoming Jewish in nationality or in religious behavior. James was crucial in affirming Paul’s Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, with no additional works needed. You didn’t have to become a Jew first in order to be saved. You didn’t have to keep the Law in order to be saved.

It was James’ persuasive words at the Jerusalem council which affirmed the true Gospel–the very Gospel Paul was proclaiming to Gentiles, by grace through faith. Salvation from God. God alone saves sinners–the free gift of the Gospel. James only asked the Gentiles to avoid behavior in front of the Jews which would cause them offense. James charged the Gentiles to live out their faith. Love your brothers by not eating a ham sandwich in front of them. Let your faith be lived out in your behavior.

James continued to be a key figure in the Jerusalem church for many years. When Paul returned to Jerusalem with the collection from the Gentile churches to minister to the starving Jewish believers in Jerusalem–in order to build unity between Jew and Gentile in the church, Paul reported to James and to the elders of the Jerusalem church in Acts 21:17 to 20, “After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. 18And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19After he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20And when they heard it they began glorifying God.”

Even as Paul began his powerful church planting, apostolic ministry, James was already a prominent leader in the first church–the Jerusalem, mainly Jewish, church. James was considered by Paul to be a pillar in the church. Galatians 1:18,19,2:9, “Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. 19But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 2:9and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.”

James was a pillar in the Church, primarily proclaiming the Gospel to Jews. James’ prominence in the Early Church is also made evident in the book of Jude. Jude is also a half-brother of the Lord, a son of Mary and Joseph and a full brother to James. Jude shows how prominent James is in the Church in his opening salutation. Jude 1, “Jude, a bond-servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James.”

Yet with all this prominence, authority and responsibility, look at how James identifies himself in James 1:1, “James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Bondservant is slave–he sees himself as a slave of God. “I’m nothing special, just a slave of God. I won’t boast in my human relationship, only my spiritual relationship.” Rather than seeking the spotlight, asserting his background—after all, he could have said, “I lived with Jesus–I’m related. What are you?” He does nothing of the kind.

James could have said, “Do you know who my brother is?” James could have dropped the Name above all names! Commentator Kent Hughes said of James, “He could have begun his letter, ‘James the Just, from the sacred womb of Mary, congenital sibling of Christ his brother, confidant of the Messiah.’ But James didn’t even hint about his personal status – NO James repeats my favorite designation, JUST A SLAVE of Christ.” Calling yourself a slave implies absolute obedience. Total humility. And complete loyalty. Are you a slave of Christ?

James opposes all forms of human exaltation and selfishness and humbly introduces himself as a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. He never pulls rank, drop names, reveals his pedigree or pads his resume or brags about his experience. James calls himself a bond servant—a doulos. A slave of God and of Christ. Obviously a slave is not an esteemed position in the Roman culture, but to James it is a glorious privilege to be the slave of His God and His Lord. His relationship finds its security and takes its identity in His spiritual foundation, not his physical lineage.

There were some who called James, “James the Just”. Or another name, Camel Knees”. His knees were like the knees of camels, because he spent so much time kneeling in prayer. These descriptions came from the Early Church historian, Eusebius, who also describes James’ martyrdom. After Paul appealed to Caesar and had been sent to Rome by Festus, the Jews, being frustrated in their hope of entrapping him by the snares which they had laid for him, turned against James, the brother of the Lord.

Leading him in their midst, they demanded of James that he should renounce faith in Christ in the presence of the people. But contrary to the opinion of all, with a clear voice, and with greater boldness than they had anticipated, he spoke out before the whole multitude and confessed that our Savior and Lord Jesus is the Son of God.

James’ declaration about Christ was so clear and his life was known for such virtue, being esteemed by everyone, saved and unsaved alike as the most just of men, it is said by Eusebius that the religious leaders realized giving James a platform to speak about Christ was a mistake–so they immediately stoned him. This involved taking him to a high spot, throwing him off and throwing rocks on him. In the midst of this, out loud, he prayed for his attackers, causing some to stop stoning him out of shame. James the just is praying. But the most bloodthirsty then took a club and beat him to death. And thus James died as a martyr in AD 62.

Kent Hughes continues, “James was a ‘late bloomer’, but he flowered well! James knew Christ as only a few could. For years he had eaten at the same table, shared the same house, played in the same places, and watched the development of his amazing older brother. And when he truly came to know Christ, his boyhood privilege was not wasted, for he became known as James the Just, a man of immense piety.” Who does James write to?


Verse 1, “James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad.” James writes to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion. Dispersion means scattering, and was a term used of Jews living outside of Palestine. “Twelve tribes” traditionally refers to the children of Israel throughout the world–they are scattered. James of course is writing to the Jewish as well as Gentile believers who, because of early persecution, are scattered around the known world. Several times in his letter here, James refers to these believers as “brethren”.

James is writing to predominantly Jewish Christians who were scattered outside of Jerusalem, likely due to the persecution by Herod Agrippa, which began in Acts 12. Charles Swindoll reminds his readers, “Roman emperor Claudius had driven the Jews out of the Roman world. Their businesses were shut down and boycotted. Jewish children were mocked and tossed out of schools. Life was indeed hard and Jewish believers faced this persecution from outside and inside the Church. Not only were they put out nationally and culturally, but they were also persecuted spiritually from Jewish believers because of their faith in Jesus Christ.”

These dispersed Jewish Christians lived without being able to drop roots in one place, some never finding a church and sometimes a home–they felt like aliens in a foreign land. They were crushed under the weight of not belonging and being treated unfairly. In a situation like that, trials can overwhelm, temptations can eat at you, injustice and unfair treatment can move you to bitterness, and discouragement can hit you like a ton of bricks. You can easily grow weary and lose hope. Some were on the verge of wanting to give up, compromise their faith. So what should they do? What did they do?

They logically looked to Jerusalem, and the most prominent Jewish Christian of their time–the half-brother of the Lord, James, who writes to exhort and encourage. He writes them to live out their faith under difficult, harsh, unfair and unjust circumstances. What does James say? One word in verse 1:1.


James 1:1, “James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.”

Greetings”–that’s the normal hello for a first century Greek letter. It is found nowhere else in the New Testament, except in another letter in Acts 15 this same hello James used is found in this letter from the Jerusalem counsel and sent by them, “The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, GREETINGS” (Acts 15:23). But after this greeting, that ends the niceties. James goes for the throat with a string of amazingly connected exhortation pearls, each calling believers to live out their faith.

James uses the communication style of his day–like the popular traveling philosophers who would speak in public in James’ day, a time with no media and little entertainment, James used imaginary conversations with imaginary opponents–lots of imperative commands, rhetorical questions, personifying virtues and vices, using famous men as examples like Abraham, Rahab, Job and Elijah. Asking searching questions, along with using paradoxical intros to gain attention, like counting trials as joy.

My friend, pastor Scott Ardavanis says, “James uses illustrations from horses, to springs of water, wind, withering sun, boats, fire, pregnancy, labor and delivery, mirrors, grapes, figs, flowers, moths, rust, rain, mist, and Old Testament heroes! He addresses demons, the rich, corroding metals, trials, temptations and humiliation.” James’ writing, is very compelling–you can’t help but see its practical life application.

Many claim James is notoriously difficult to outline. Kistemaker said, “A superficial glance at this epistle, may easily leave the impression that every attempt to outline it must fail.” Others accuse James of a rambling style–like Old Testament proverbs. Or slander him as writing a loose collection of moral warnings—not true. This epistle has a very strategic purpose. James has a masterful way of putting truth into action. James is extremely practical for every one of every age. Of the 108 verses in this epistle, in less than 2,000 words, there are over 59 commands. He is in your face–functioning like a prophet of God.

The theme of James is living faith–living out your beliefs. No matter what happens, those who know Christ will want to obey God’s Word, apply God’s Word and live uniquely for Christ in this world. True faith is a faith that works. True belief behaves. James demands that your faith in Christ be functional. Show me your faith. Picture what was happening behind this epistle to understand its topics and its outline.

Years before James, the Roman general Pompey had cut Judean territory and made many Jewish peasants landless. Then Herod the Great added exorbitant taxes to build his projects, which drove more small farmers out of business. So now, many whom James writes in the first century worked as tenants on larger, feudal estates. Others became landless day laborers in the marketplaces, finding work only sporadically.

Resentment against aristocratic landlords ran high in many parts of the empire. But nonpayment of promised goods from these tenants was hardly an option–a few landowners even had their own hit squads of hired assassins to unjustly deal with uncooperative tenants. The situation was less extreme in the cities, but even there, divisions between poor and rich were obvious, like the poor lower city peasants literally living in the smell of the sewer from the rich, upper city homes.

The Jerusalem aristocracy became an object of hatred for the Zealots, because they made deals with Rome. Ultimately, starvation led to violence in the streets and injustice in the courts, trials and temptations galore, preferential treatment, longing for the things of the world, hatred of the rich, lack of obedience to the Word and unwillingness to pray. All of this helps you to understand the outline of James, what is in James for faith to live. I affirm ten key areas where one’s faith will be lived out as Christians. Which of these topics, which of these tests/challenges will impact you the most?

1.  Faith is to live when facing TRIALS  (1:2-12)

2.  Faith is to live when dealing with TEMPTATIONS  (1:13-18)

3.  Faith is to live in HEARING, RESPONDING and OBEYING the Word of God  (1:19-27)

4.  Faith is to live by show IMPARTIALITY  (2:1-13)

5.  Faith is to live by its ACTIVITY and FRUIT  (2:14-26)

6.  Faith is to live by self-control of the TONGUE  (3:1-18)

7.  Faith is to live by its reaction to WORLDLINESS  (4:1-17)

8.  Faith is to live by its reaction to the RICH and life’s INJUSTICE  (5:1-12)

9.  Faith is to live by demonstrating obedience to PRAYER  (5:13-18)

10.  Faith is to live by its resolve to CONFRONT sinning believers  (5:19-20)

This is the stuff of our lives. James wrote it to Jewish Christians in the first century, but it is just as practical and pointed for you and me today. Get ready to rock. This is God’s powerful Word, given by God through an inspired New Testament writer, who happens to be the half-brother of our Lord Jesus Christ.


A  James in 45AD, then Galatians in 49AD are the earliest New Testament letters

Martin Luther called James a right strawy epistle, because he was so passionate about salvation by grace through faith, and he didn’t appreciate James’ emphasis on works. But James looks at salvation in light of the fruit it produces, and not works as the means of salvation. In fact, the two earliest New Testament books help you understand the extreme reactions to the Gospel back then and today.

There were people back then and people today who are adding works, behavior, social action to the Gospel and violating the teaching of Galatians and the Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And there were people back then and people today who were saved by grace, but treating the gift of salvation as an excuse to live any way they wanted. So James says, “No, true salvation by grace through faith produces works. True faith lives. Genuine saving faith transforms a heart so you want to obey God and produce fruit.”

In Galatians, Jewish false teachers were adding law to the Gospel, so Paul says don’t add works. In James, some believers were making the Gospel an excuse to live any way they liked, react anyway they felt, say anything they wanted. And James will command us to obey God’s Word and produce the fruit of salvation through us.

B  James is calling for LIVING the Word, not merely learning the Word

How you are doing? Jesus asks you today in Luke 6:46, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” Live the Word! When is the last time you actually applied the Word to your life? Let’s be pointed–when is the last time you heard a sermon, were convicted over a truth, and then immediately, through dependence upon the Spirit, lived that truth?

James is about to hit you and me with a shotgun of truth to be lived. You need to make a practice of not merely being a hearer of the word, but a doer.

C  James was known for being a RIGHTEOUS man

What are you known for? Each of you have a reputation–something you’re known for . . . funny, servant, helper, lazy, irresponsible, angry, goofy, edgy, fearful, worldly, distracted, inconsistent. In the New Testament, elders are to have a good reputation–so are deacons, so did Cornelius and Ananias. Ask your family and friends today–what is my reputation?

Ask the Lord to build new habits of obedience in your life through James the Just, so you might become Cyndi the Compassionate, Sam the Sacrificer, or Bob the Blameless.

D  James emphasizes the need for your salvation to be SHOWN

Nice people go to Hell. People who claim Christ and go to church end up in Hell. James will tell us, demons believe good trinitarian theology, but they are not saved. And Jesus warns us in Matthew 7:22 and 23, “’Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” 23And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”’”

Those who know Christ, show Christ. Those who confess Christ are committed to Christ. Those who admit Jesus is Lord follow Him. Those who have saving faith live it, show it, manifest it, even in dark times–even in failure. Cry out to Christ to save you today. There is only one way to get to Heaven, one way to be forgiven, one way to know Christ—and that is to exchange all that you are for all that He is. Do that now. Let’s pray.

About Chris Mueller

Chris is the teaching pastor at Faith Bible Church - Murrieta.

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