The Epistle of James is one filled with immense power. We often think of it as being a very practical book and, although this is true, it is so much more. It is a letter that drills down deep into our hearts and asks us to consider the genuine­ness of our faith. It challenges us about what really motivates our actions and what true religion actually is. It is easy to say we believe in one God, but is our faith as single-minded as we profess? Are our actions actually driven by the wisdom from above?

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James’ words are bound with more significance when we come to understand that they mirror the very lessons that he himself learnt by bitter experience. There is great inspiration in learning from a person who can not only sympathise but empathise with us. The one who once rejected his Lord and Messiah was to become a “pillar” in the first century ecclesia (Gal 2:9) and finally die for his faith as “James the Just” (Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, vol II, ch 23, quoting Hegesippus).

James Who?

There are four possible answers to this question – James the Lord’s brother, James the son of Zebedee, James the son of Alphaeus (the Less) and James the father of Judas. Little is said or recorded of the last two, so it is generally agreed that the James in question is either James the Lord’s brother or James the son of Zebedee.

James the son of Zebedee was taken and killed very early in the life of the early ecclesia (Acts 12:2). Although the Epistle of James is also written early, it is interesting to note that James the son of Zebedee is named in early Acts as “the brother of John” to differ­entiate him from James the Lord’s brother. It should be noted that no such differentiation appears in James 1:1. This would seem to indicate that there was no reason to highlight any distinction between the two men bearing the name James because one of them (James the son of Zebedee) was no longer alive.

It is clear from Acts 12:17 that James the Lord’s brother was already an important leader in the Jerusalem ecclesia. His influence and work is very evident from other sections of Scripture too (Gal 1:19; 2:9; Acts 15).

There are also similarities between the words of James in Acts 15 and the phrases used by James the Lord’s brother in the epistle:

  • “Men and brethren, hearken” (Acts 15:13) – compare James 2:5
  • “The words of the prophets” (Acts 15:15) – com­pare James 4:8-10; 5:1,10
  • “Beloved brethren” (Acts 15:25) – compare James 1:16,19; 2:5
  • The wisdom demonstrated in James’ words in Acts 15 attest very much to the pattern of his words in James 3.

Taking this a step further we can trace James’ upbringing through the gospels and build a signifi­cant picture of the man. In doing this we will be able to appreciate how his manner of life underpins the lessons of the book he penned.

James’ Family Upbringing

There is good evidence in the Scriptures about the godly characteristics of James’ parents, Joseph and Mary. We must remember that this was also the house­hold in which our Lord Jesus Christ grew up and God was evidently behind these arrangements.

Joseph is called by God a “just man” (Matt 1:19); how apt seeing this was James’ reputation according to the historian Hegesippus. The way Joseph went about privately acting on his convictions attests to his integrity. Scripture also records him as a deep thinker who was faithful and obedient to God (Matt 1:20-25).

Mary’s character is beautifully portrayed through the words of Gabriel in Luke 1:28. She was also a deep thinker on spiritual things (Luke 1:29,34; 2:19) and one who faithfully obeys as the “handmaiden” of her Lord (Luke 1:38). Her understanding of Scripture, as seen in Luke 1:46-55, attests to her appreciation and love of God and His purpose.

This became the basis of their family values and the priority for their lives. They were devoted to God’s law and had an abiding desire to uphold it in their lives. Luke emphasises this in his repetition of the theme: “according to the law of Moses” (2:22), “As it is writ­ten in the law of the Lord” (2:23), “according to that which is said in the law of the Lord” (2:24), “after the custom of the law” (2:27) and “had performed all things according to the law of the Lord” (2:39).

It is clear from Luke 2:1-43 that Joseph and Mary were conscientiously dedicated to the things of God, the temple worship and Jewish customs. They were passionate and zealous about their faith, as shown by, again Luke’s record in triplicate, their attendance to the feasts and customs and fulfilling of the appointed days (Luke 2:41-43). It is easy to see why James would have grown up with such a deep respect for God’s law too. It becomes a key in his preaching in Acts 15 and a firm foundation in his Epistle (James 1:25; 2:8-12; 4:11). His exposition of true religion was based firmly upon the Law (he quotes from Lev 19, Deut 8, 9 and 10) and his selection of faithful people out of the Law and Prophets demonstrates his deep appreciation of their living faith (James 2:21-25; 5:10-11,17).

A Reluctant Leader?

James grew up in a truly godly, religious and close knit family. However it is interesting to note the absence of Joseph early in the ministry of Jesus. For example, he is not mentioned in Mark 6:3. It could be inferred from this that Joseph died young, leaving the family of Mary, Jesus, his four brothers and unnumbered sisters without a husband and father.

Jesus would never have ceased to “visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27). Yet as his work was “to be about his Father’s business” (Luke 2:49), he would have experienced the ever increasing gulf between himself and his family, ultimately end­ing in James’ rejection of Jesus leading up to his death (Psa 69:8).

As James is named first in the list of family mem­bers (Mark 6:3) can we conclude that he was the eldest of Joseph and Mary’s children? If so, would James have felt a sense of responsibility thrust upon him to lead the family, particularly when his older brother was absent preaching throughout the land?

Initially, James and his family followed Jesus (John 2:12). James had a deep respect for religious leaders. This included Jesus and those that ran the temple wor­ship. He would have viewed them all as pious leaders and keepers of the law, the real “seed of Abraham”. Jesus was truly a unique and godly man whose understanding of Scripture and its teachings would have been highly esteemed in James’eyes. At this time it was their custom to go up to the Passover (cp John 2:13 & Luke 2:41).

James himself was zealous of the Law with a determination to follow its customs and observances. He admired and respected those who knew and taught the Law.

A Deep Cut

Yet it became increasingly obvious to James, that Jesus’ teaching was clearly at odds with the religious lead­ers of the nation and this would have caused a great conflict within his mind. Mark 3:21-35 records a vital event that not only engraved itself on James forever but demonstrated the struggle and duality in James’ mind.

The respected and honoured leaders of the nation, as James saw it, were being clearly opposed and con­demned by Jesus. The response of the scribes in calling Jesus the “prince of the devils” was expected. However, it was the reaction of his “kinsmen” (Mark 3:21) or “fam­ily” (NIV, ESV) that is the key to this. They thought he was “out of his mind”! In fact so concerned were they that they tried to restrain Jesus. In doing so they are described as “standing without” (v31). They were isolating themselves from their brother’s message and aligning themselves with the scribes who had come from Jerusalem. Their best attempt to stop Jesus had been to send a person into the midst of the crowd and call him out. This is the action of a family which is deeply embarrassed by his teaching and is trying to publicly dis­tance themselves from him.

Jesus’ response and rebuke was a very deep cut to James (v33-35). James’ respect for the rich leaders of the nation had gone from a simple concern about Jesus’ teachings to now public dissocia­tion and shame of Jesus.

However, this event would be forever imprinted on James’ mind. Jesus had said that his mother and brethren were those who do the will of his Father. When James was converted, and wrote his epistle, his emphasis on the evils of respecting persons becomes an important teaching in his letter (1:26-27; 2:1-5). Luke’s account (8:21) adds that his family is made up of those “that hear the word of God, and do it”. This lays a strong foundation for James’ exposition of being “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). Furthermore the condemnation of those who would be teachers, the power of the tongue (ch 3), and the rich men who oppress (1:10; ch 5) all now appear with greater meaning when we consider this background.

Yet the most powerful reference to this event is found in James 1:1. James does not introduce himself as the brother of the Lord for two reasons. Firstly, because he doesn’t wish to promote the idea of the respecting of persons. Secondly, because he never forgot Jesus’ words that his brethren were those that “do the will of God” (Mark 3:35). So James selects the word “servant” to introduce himself. Thayer says the word means “one who does the will of another”. Ultimately James would go on to write of God that “of His own will begat He us with the word of truth” (James 1:18). Being a member of the family of God was more important than his as­sociation with his own natural family.

Stranger to my Brethren

After the pivotal event of Mark 3, Jesus’ family began to grow further and further apart from Jesus. Unwittingly they were fulfilling the prophetic words of Psalm 69:8: “I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien unto my mother’s children.” If we were to paraphrase John 7:1-8 we would see the extent to which this family estrangement went: ‘You have many disciples in Judea, but here in Galilee they are fast abandoning you … which is unfortunate for someone trying to advance themselves. Why wait here, go to Jerusalem and show them all what you are really like!’

We can’t miss the sarcasm, contempt and scorn for Jesus coming from James and his brethren. It sounds very much like the venom that came from the Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes and lawyers. However it reveals the mindset of James and his brethren at this time: “For neither did his brethren believe in him” (John 7:5).

One of the most telling pieces of evidence of their attitude towards Jesus is found at the crucifixion in John 19:25-27. The question must certainly be asked: where was James at this time? Why did Jesus have to instruct John to take care of his mother?

Sadly, James’ absence was proof he had rejected Jesus. He would not be seen publicly associating with him. James’ disbelief had aligned him with those who had put him to death. Did James agree in his heart with the delivering up of Jesus to be crucified by the Sanhedrin for the “blasphemy” Jesus spoke (Mark 14:64)? Was James so taken by the pious reli­gious leaders, who wouldn’t even enter into the “judg­ment hall, lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the Passover” (John 18:28) instead of caring for the “widow and fatherless” at this time?

Why did Jesus have to instruct John to take care of his mother? Where was James?

We may not know the answer to those questions but we can be certain that they heighten the power of James’ words about what “pure religion and undefiled before God is” (James 1:27), about “respect of persons”, or about those who “draw you before the judgement seats” and “blaspheme the worthy name” (2:1-7). They give force to his points about bridling the tongue (3:1­ 12), about exposing their desire to “lust … and kill” and to form “friendship with the world” (4:1-4). He knew firsthand about the power of “rich men” who “have condemned and killed the just” (5:1-6).

Save a Soul from Death

In the end, though, there was only one thing that could turn James around to face the reality of what his rejec­tion of Jesus meant and that was a personal appearance from the resurrected Lord himself.

Paul records in 1 Cor 15:7 this significant act. In a list where only three are named as having Christ ap­pear to them personally after his resurrection, James is a notable inclusion! We can only imagine the enormity of the impact such an occasion would have had and the lasting impression it would have left on James.

From the gospel’s background of James to his conversion, there are some striking parallels to the background of Saul of Tarsus or Paul and his conver­sion. There is no little wonder then that the Scriptures reveal a close affinity between the two. We will de­velop this idea in the second part of this article.

James would have been deeply humbled by the extent to which Jesus was prepared to go to convert him, particularly since James had once been ashamed of him and rejected him. The man that had a profound respect for the law and the prophets had now “seen” the very fulfillment and embodiment of that “word of truth”. The first begotten from the dead was indeed the very “firstfruits” of God’s creation (James 1:18).

James’ sins, which were many, were forgiven and he was now empowered to love much. This became his enduring legacy. His zeal and passion for God’s word was now aligned with “the Lord of Glory” (James 2:1). With this in mind he threw himself into the work of saving others.

James would have been deeply humbled by the extent Jesus was prepared to go to convert him.

It is fascinating to see the contrast between John 19:6-27 and Acts 1:14. James and his brethren had once dissociated themselves from Christ, but now they were all present, united in Christ. When Jesus had appeared to James personally, one wonders whether he also was given the commission to go to the rest of his family and convert them as well? Be that as it may, the end result was they were all there in the upper room “with one accord in prayer and supplication”.

This commission and legacy was so important to James that it becomes the very basis for his final words in James 5:19-20: “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.” Was James speaking of his own experience in these verses? Was this coming from the heart, in personal recognition that he was the very one who was converted and turned from the error of his ways? Humbly he would appreciate how his sins were forgiven and how he was a “soul saved from death”.

This passion and determination of James to save others made him a wonderful brother and pillar in the first century ecclesia. God willing we will see in Part 2 how he became an integral part in this life-changing work.