James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote the book of James to Christians living all over the world during a time of famine, poverty and persecution. It is considered a “general letter,” because unlike Paul’s letters, it was not written to a specific church or person, but rather was widely published so that any Christian could receive its message.
James was a prominent leader in the church in Jerusalem (see Acts 12 and 15). He is not to be confused with James the brother of John or James the son of Alpheus, who were both disciples of Jesus (see Mark 3:13-19).
In the original Greek text, the name James appears as “Iakobos,” which can be translated as Jacob. “Iakobos” was likely translated to James when the Bible was first translated into English from the original Greek and Hebrew in the late 13th century.
The book of James is full of references to the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) and Proverbs. In fact, the letter is written in the style of the wisdom literature in the Old Testament, like Proverbs.
The letter contains several easy-to-remember verses (James 1:19-20, James 1:27, James 2:26, James 4:17, James 5:12), which sum up some of its main points. James was known for his wisdom, and this letter was his way of sharing his Godly wisdom with the universal church.
The purpose of James’ letter is to encourage Christians to remain wholeheartedly devoted to God, and to show their devotion to God through their words and actions.
James reflects on several of the teachings from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7), and reiterates the same topics on which Jesus taught, including judging others, helping the poor and needy, remaining humble, praying faithfully and bringing glory to God by committing good deeds.
The foundation of James’ teaching is Jesus’ “Great Commandment”: “Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself”’” (Matthew 22:37-39).
Practice what you preach: The most prominent theme in James is putting faith into action. James devotes nearly three chapters to the importance of both proclaiming our faith in Christ and letting our faith determine the way we act, speak and treat others. James writes that our good deeds are evidence for our faith, and that “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26).
The power of words: James also focuses on the power that words have in our lives and the lives of those around us. He explains the power of the tongue, and that it is dangerous when uncontrolled. He writes that words hold the power of life and death. Just as God spoke the world into existence with words, so we too speak eternal life into the world when we proclaim the truth of the Gospel. He also writes of the power of prayer. He recalls the Old Testament story of Elijah and reminds the reader that when we pray to God in faith, He hears us and has the power to answer.
Wholehearted devotion to God: At the root of the challenges and encouragement James delivers in his letter is a call to wholehearted devotion to God. Whether it’s the things we do, the words we speak or the resources we give, what matters most is our motivation behind them. Over and over, James refers to the symptoms of a lack of faith: selfish ambition, greed, disregard for the poor, gossip and envy.
HOW DOES THIS FIT INTO GOD’S STORY?
Through quick-witted wisdom and strong, often blunt language, James reminds Christians that following Christ is not just a verbal commitment, but a daily walk.
The terrain is not always easy, the weather is not always sunny, but Christians serve a God who generously pours out wisdom, who draws near to those who draw near to Him, who lifts up the poor and humble, who heals the sick and answers our prayers, who judges perfectly and who never changes.