The book of James is overlooked or dismissed by many in the Christian community today for reasons that are simply unmerited. It is proposed that this book is written to Jews who must be justified by their works unlike the church which is justified by faith alone. They will erroneously cling only to the writings of Paul as the church’s sole source for doctrine, who wrote:
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness - 2 Timothy 3:16
And yet, to suit their own purposes, they will dismiss the gospels and the epistles that were not written by Paul as being relevant to the church today for doctrine. They will call this “rightly dividing the word of truth” according to 2 Timothy 2:15. Please read my article What Did the Apostle Paul Mean by "Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth"? for more on this topic.
In this article I will propose why I believe that this book is a valuable asset for anyone who would be called a follower of Christ. In this article I will show that the message that James was conveying really isn’t any different than what Paul taught.
Who was the intended audience of the book of James?
Biblical scholars believe that James is likely to be the earliest written of all of the New Testament books, circa 44-49 AD. At that time, the church would have been comprised primarily of Jewish converts from the region of Judea and surrounding areas. We read in the book of Acts that the church enjoyed much growth in the days immediately following Pentecost as many Jews from surrounding nations repented and accepted Christ as the crucified Messiah. A few years earlier, Peter had his rooftop vision where he was shown that the Gentiles were not to be excluded, which was a fulfillment of Hosea 2:18 where the unclean animals were symbolic of the Gentile.
In the opening statement of this book, James addresses the audience as “the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad”. This is actually an important clue as to who and when this book was written and the circumstances that his audience found themselves in. The ten northern tribes of Israel had long been dispersed among the nations long before Christ came to live here on earth and were effectively no longer a nation. Those of the tribe of Judah were still in Judea but there were Judeans who were scattered abroad as well. But, one should not assume that James was speaking to the nation of unbelieving Israelites. James identified himself as a bond-servant of Christ in James 1:1 and in verse 7 he said:
Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?
That “fair name” was the name of Christian that denoted that they were followers of Christ.
Then, chapter 2, verse 1 James says:
“My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism”
These were followers of Christ, Christians, the church! It would be a mistake to claim that this was written to Jews in general because the early church had already been ostracized by the Jewish religious leadership and Jewish community in general.
James, like Jesus, likened those of like faith to be his brethren:
But He answered and said to them, “My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it - Luke 8:21
It is important to remember that the early church was comprised of Jews and then, as it was revealed to them, the Gentiles were included and thus became a singular “Body of Christ”. To a lifelong Jews steeped in Judaism, being inclusive of Gentiles and calling them “brother” was like a complicated and difficult process to undergo. They had come to believe that only they were God’s chosen people and all others were beneath them. But, the early church was tasked with accepting Gentiles as fellow brothers, thus breaking down the social barrier that had stood for generations. Paul wrote:
Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. - Ephesians 2:11-16
Does the fact that James fails to mention Gentile believers exclude them from being benefactors of this letter? Not at all, it only means that at that time Jewish Christians were his intended audience because they would have been the vast majority of believers at that time. It is believed that just a few years after the book of James was written, Paul made his first missionary Journey abroad, thus the spreading of the gospel was still somewhat limited to people of Jewish origin at the time that James was written.
James rebukes those who show partiality
In James 2, James addresses an issue that seemed to be plaquing these believers. They were giving greater honor to those who were affluent than to those who were poor. James reminds them that God chose the poor of this world to be heirs of the kingdom. The immediate context here is poor as in earthly riches, but I think that there very well have been a deeper, spiritual implication. If you remember, Matthew was a tax-collector and probably wasn’t all that poor. The “poor” could have also referred to those who were lacking religious pretentiousness.
I don’t want to get too far into the weeds here, but James made the remark that God chose the poor to be heirs of the kingdom. Which kingdom? This would be the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” of which Jesus spoke so frequently about. Now, this brings up an interesting question, did Paul also refer to being part of this kingdom when speaking to Gentile believers? Yes, he did, repeatedly!
“For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” - Romans 14:17
“For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power.” - 1 Corinthians 4:20
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. - 1 Corinthians 6:9,10
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. - 1 Corinthians 15:20-24
Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. - 1 Corinthians 15:50
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. - Galatians 5:19-24
For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. - Ephesians 5:5
For He [Christ] rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son - Colossians 1:13
And also Jesus who is called Justus; these are the only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are from the circumcision, and they have proved to be an encouragement to me. - Colossians 4:11
For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory. - 1 Thessalonians 2:9-12
This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering. - 2 Thessalonians 1:5
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom - 2 Timothy 4:1
The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen - 2 Timothy 4:18
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Both James and Paul were speaking of the same kingdom which John the Baptist and Jesus repeatedly proclaimed was at hand. If James were not to be accepted as good doctrine for the church, then there must be two kingdoms of God. Sorry, but that concept would not have a strong scriptural foundation.
Did Paul have anything to say about treating everyone with dignity and honor? Yes!
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. - Romans 12:9-13
Fulfilling the “Royal Law”
Some will argue that James promoted the keeping of the law and since the church is not under the law he can not be speaking to the church. James wrote:
For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. - James 2:11
The context here is contained within the royal law which James defined as being “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” in verse 8 which is a quote from Leviticus 19:18. This is consistent with what Jesus said when the scribe asked which of the commandments was the greatest.
Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” - Mark 12:29-30
But, those who seek to “rightly divide” will say that Jesus was speaking to the Jews, not the church! Fair enough, what did Paul have to say about this?
For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. - Romans 2:12-16
All, both Jew and Gentile, will be judged according to the secrets of their hearts. Paul is alluding to the same Royal Law of loving your neighbor that James was and that Jesus also spoke of. Love is true essence and intent of the Law and Paul repeatedly spoke of this:
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor, not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. - Romans 12:9-13
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. - Romans 13:8-10
Hmm, doesn’t Paul sound a lot like James in that passage? Paul refers to the true meaning of the law and that we as Christians are still obligated to love our neighbor, thus fulfilling the Royal Law.
Are we justified by works?
In chapter 2:14-26, James enters into a discourse where he makes a case that faith without works is dead:
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
Some Christians take issue with this portion of his letter because James is not teaching that we are justified by faith alone apart from works, and they would be correct. But, what James is talking about here is completely different from the works of the law. It is true that we are no longer bound by all of ceremonial laws but we are still bound to love God with all of our hearts and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus said:
On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” - Matthew 22:40
Jesus was saying that if we obey those two simple commandments then we have fulfilled the all that is required of us.
So, what about these works that James spoke of? These aren’t the works of the law but they are the fruits that follow our faith. James was telling his audience that if someone was in need that it simply isn’t enough to wish them well, we should be willing to meet their needs because of the mercy and love that God has shown us. If, by faith, we have accepted Christ into our hearts, then that same love should flow freely from our hearts to others. If the spirit of Christ and the Living God dwells within us, then the fruits of the spirit will be evident in our lives. James uses Abraham as an example of how Abraham’s faith compelled him to obey God and he was counted as righteous because of it and this act of faith came well before the law.
Well, what of those who say that we only need to follow the teachings of Paul? Are we still compelled to do good works that come as a result of our faith?
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. - Ephesians 2:8-10
For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. - Colossians 1:9,10
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace, comfort and strengthen your hearts in every good work and word. - 2 Thessalonians 2:16,17
But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. A widow is to be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man, having a reputation for good works; and if she has brought up children, if she has shown hospitality to strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has assisted those in distress, and if she has devoted herself to every good work. - 1 Timothy 5:8-10
Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share. - 1 Timothy 6:18
Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. - 2 Timothy 2:21
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. - 2 Timothy 3:16,17
The message taught by James and Paul really weren’t that different. Both were bondservants of Christ who were instructing others to live and walk as Jesus did. The message of repentance, forgiveness, the kingdom and love is consistent in the gospels as well as all of the epistles. To dismiss any part of scripture as not being written for the edification of the church is a mistake.
All passages provided are from the NASB.
© 2019 Tony Muse
mrgene on November 01, 2019:
Good comparison of words between James, Paul, and Jesus. It's important to always look at all of scripture as a whole and see how everything correlates together. But at times we get in the habit of focusing on one or two verses and not understand them in context. I'm glad you were careful in trying to do that in your defense of James. I wrote some writings on that book recently myself too. You can click my profile and click my "follow me here" button to see what you think.