| Back to Home Page | Back to Book Index |


Introduction to the Epistle of James


I. Writer


The writer called himself “James” (1:1), which was a quite popular name among the Jews and Christians in the first century. In the four Gospels of the New Testament, there are at least five figures named James, including:

1)    James, the son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3);

2)    James, the father of Judas who was one of the twelve disciples (this Judas might be the other name of Thaddaeus) (Luke 6:16; see Matt. 10:3);

3)    James, the son of Mary who was one of the women under the cross (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40);

4)    James, the brother of the apostle John, and the son Zebedee (Matt. 10:2);

5)    James, the brother of the Lord Jesus in the flesh (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3);

According to the content of this epistle, the writer was bound to be a very renowned and influential authority figure in the churches. Among the above-mentioned five “James”s, only James, the son of Zebedee, and James, the physical brother of the Lord Jesus matched the condition. And the first three ones seemed to have no direct relation with this epistle. And the fourth James, the son of Zebedee, was martyred for the Lord (Acts 12:2), leaving few materials. Therefore, a majority of Bible expositors believe that the writer of this epistle was the fifth James, namely, the physical brother of the Lord Jesus.

This James did not believe the Lord Jesus before His crucifixion that He is the Son of God (see Mark 3:20-21, 31-35; John 7:5). However, after the resurrection of the Lord, the Lord had especially appeared to him (1Cor. 15:7). Then he thus became the believer of the Lord (see Acts 1:14) and was very godly and become a leading brother of the church. The apostle Paul called him the pillar of the church (Gal. 2:9), who was of significant influence in the church:

1)    After the apostle Peter was delivered from the prison by the angel, he asked brothers to tell it to James (Acts 12:17).

2)    After the repentance of the apostle Paul, he went to Jerusalem the first time and visited James (Gal. 1:19).

3)    He was respected by believers, and was used by the Judaist among believers, who often commanded the gentile believers in the New Testament to keep the Mosaic law in the name of James (see Gal. 2:12; Acts 15:1, 5, 24).

4)    In the conference of Jerusalem held for the purpose of discussing whether the gentiles had to be circumcised, James was the final spokesman who put the seal of approval (Acts 15:13-21). And thus he was conspicuous in his great position and was respected by all believers.

5)    Paul went to meet James when he went to Jerusalem the last time (Acts 21:18).

6)    The writer of the Epistle of Jude called him the brother of James (Jude1), so this James was famous among all the churches. All knew him when the name was mentioned only.

Traditionally, this James aspired to be “a Nazirite” after he believed the Lord and led the godly and holy life, and was called “the just James”. When the church was persecuted by the congregation, only James was allowed to enter into the holy temple to worship God. He paid great attention to prayers, and often knelt in adoration of God in the temple that his knees was become as coarse and thick as the skin of camels. According to the records of the Jewish historian Joseph, in 62 A.D., he was finally pushed by the congregation from the top of the temple and was smitten by tones because of refusing to deny the Lord Jesus. However, he still knelt down to pray to God for remission for the persecutors and was scourged to death at the end.


II. The Time and Location the Epistle was Written


According to the content of this epistle, the time of writing it could be divided into two kinds of views: one is the earlier period before 50 A.D., and the second is the later period before 62 A.D. (when James was martyred) with supporting points respectively:

1)    Reasons for the first possibility (the earlier period before 50 A.D.) are as below: a) in the early church time, the place where believers were gathered was called “assembly” (see Acts 13:14-15, 42-44, 15:21); b) in this epistle, only “teachers” (3:1) and “elders” (5:14) were mentioned, and “minister” was not. And this was also the situation of the early church; b) things resolved in the conference in Jerusalem (about 49 A.D.) were not mentioned in this epistle; d) this epistle reveals the earnestness of the early church of waiting for the Lord’s second coming (5:8).

2)    Reasons for the second possibility (the earlier period before 62 A.D) are as follows: a) most of the problems mentioned in this epistle arose in the later period of church; b) since there were seldom rich men in early church, discrimination between economic conditions (2:1-6) and pride in wealth (5:1-6) might appear in the later period; c) this epistle lacked the spiritual fervent situation of the early church, so it had been a long period from the coming of the Holy Spirit; d) the destruction of Jerusalem was not mentioned in this epistle (70 A.D.).

Most Bible expositors agree with the view that it was an early epistle and very possibly was the earliest book in the New Testament (i.e. is might be written earlier than the Epistles to the Galatians). In a word, this epistle might be written during 45 A.D. to 50 A.D. If it was not so, it would be at least before 62 A.D.

Concerning the location the epistle was written, it might be the land of Palestine, very possibly, Jerusalem, because there was not any record mentioning James had been left Jerusalem after he believed the Lord. 


III. The Recipients

This epistle was written to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (1:1), namely, all the Jewish believers who are scattered abroad places outside of the land of Palestine (2:1).

Someone thinks that it is a kind of implicit expression of “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad”, implying all believers in the New Testament. And it is still more reasonable of writing to the Jewish believers because of the heavy Jewish flavor of the wording of this epistle, e.g. “Abraham our father” (2:21), “the Lord of Sabaoth” (5:4) etc.

Nevertheless, the spiritual and moral principles in this epistle are not restricted by time, and are still fit for the church today. Therefore, when we read this epistle at present, we shall still seek and receive the word of God spoken to us.


IV. The Motivation for Writing this Epistle


    James wrote this epistle for at least two motivations:

1.    For the purpose of correcting the wrong views in the church; someone declared that they believed the Lord Jesus and yet walked unworthily of the gospel of Christ. Their faith was only an oral confession of the identity of Christians, but their life was of no difference from unbelievers.

2.    For the purpose of pointing out the right belief of Christians; the true faith of Christians must be on account of the word of God planted in man’s heart and then yield the fruit out of the new life in their conversation. The real condition of a man’s faith can be seen from his works.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   


V. The Importance of this Book


This epistle provides true warnings to Christians, showing that believers are faced with the same danger of paying attention to building the spiritual castles in the air but ignoring the steadfast life. Therefore, believers may not become what they confess to be and fall short of the glory of God. No wonder that there is often someone in the world commenting “many Christians utter better words, but walk worse than unbelievers”. Therefore, this book is as a spiritual mirror that teaches us to keep a balance between hearers of the word and doers the word, and faith and works, and preaching and speaking, and what is spiritual and what is worldly, and reliance on God and fulfillment of man’s responsibility, and thus enables us to become normal Christians.


VI. Main Structure and General Description


    True faith must be manifested in one’s life and experience. In other words, the faith without works has little help to Christians and yet causes the judgment of God.


VII. Special Points


    This epistle has the following conspicuous points:

1.    It is obviously characterized by the Jewish literary color. Many examples of this book are chosen from the Old Testament (see 2:21-23, 25; 5:11, 17). The Bible expositor Meyer even found some descriptions corresponding with the prophecies of the twelve tribes: 1) Asher had the earthly riches (1:9-11; Gen. 49:20); 2) Issachar was a tributary servant (1:12; Gen. 49:14-15); 3) Reuben was the firstborn (1:18; Gen. 49:3); 4) Levi was relevant to the worship of God (1:26-27; Gen. 49:7); 5) Naphtali brought peace to men (3:18; Gen. 49:21); 6) Simeon and Gad related to struggles and wars (4:1-2; Gen. 49:5-6, 19); 7) “Dan” waited for the coming of salvation (5:7; Gen. 49:18); 8) Joseph was blessed by prayers (5:13-18; Gen. 49:22-26); 9) Benjamin shared life with men (5:20; Gen. 49:27);

2.    This epistle refers to fewer theories but more practices. Theological doctrines are seldom mentioned in this book, and the practical problems in Christians’ life are much emphasized. For instance: 1) joy in tribulations (1:2-4); 2) hearing the word is for the purpose of doing the word (1:19-25); 3) the real expression of godliness (1:26-27); 4) do not hold the faith with partiality (2:1-7); 5) If man wants to keep the whole law, he shall love his neighbor as himself (2:8-13); 6) true faith must produce works (2:14-26); 7) a perfect man does not stumble in word (3:1-12); 8) true wisdom must yield good fruit (3:13-18); 9) one who really loves God must not love the world (4:1-10); 10) he who really knows good and evil must do good (4:11-17); 11) he who really keeps the truth must not love money, and is able to bear in tribulations, and does not swear and pays attentions to prayers and turns sinners from the error of his way (5:1-20).

3.    There are many topics in this epistle though there are merely five chapters. In the short five chapters, one after another, there are altogether more than twenty topics.

4.    A lot of verses in this epistle are in an imperative manner. Nearly sixty verses are used in the imperative among the total one hundred and eight verses in this epistle. About a half of the whole book on average are in the imperative.

5.    The polished and fluent Greek literary style keeps up with the Epistle to the Hebrews.

6.    It is full of parables. Just like the preaching of the Lord Jesus, who often explains some profound truth with easy and practical parable, for example: 1) the parable of waves on the sea to illustrate faith (1:6); 2) the parable of flower and grass to refer to the worldly empty glory (1:10-11); 3) the parable of seed and mirror to indicate the word of God (1:21-23); the parable of body and soul to refer to the relation of works with faith (2:26); 5) the parable of the bits in horses' mouths, the rudder of the ship and fire to show the influence of the tongue to men (3:3-6); 6) the parable of the spring and the fruit of the tree to explain the importance of sincerity (3:9-12); 7) the parable of vapor to relate to man’s life (4:14); 8) the parable of corrosion to show the result of improper usage of money (5:3); 9) the parable of the farmers who wait for the precious fruit to encourage believers to wait patiently (5:7) etc.

7.    There are also many contrasts in this epistle, at least twelve pairs as below: 1) trial and temptation (1:2-18); 2) hearers of the word and doers of the word (1:19-25); 3) godliness and vanity (1:26-27); 4) partiality and loving neighbor as oneself (2:1-13); 5) faith and works (2:14-26); 6) blessing and curse (3:1-12); 7) true wisdom and false wisdom (3:13-18); 8) the pursuit of God and the pursuit of the world (4:1-10); 9) self-reliance and reliance on God (4:11-17); 10) the unrighteous rich man and the Lord of Sabaoth (5:1-6); 11) the present patience and the coming end (5:7-11); 12) swearing and prayer (5:12-18).


VIII. Its Relations with Other Books in the Scriptures


There are at least three books that have close relation with this book, namely, the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, and the Gospel of Matthew and the Epistle to the Galatians in the New Testament.

1.    According to the writing form of this epistle, it is like a collection of mottoes, in which there are many proverbs and precise verses in a concise form. The content is similar to that of the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, both of which emphasize wisdom and the necessary expressions of one who fears God. Therefore, it can be regarded as the Book of Proverbs in the New Testament.

2.    According to the content of this epistle, it seems to be of many quotations of “the Sermon on the Mount” of the Lord Jesus. Therefore, there are many similarities between this epistle and the Gospel of Matthew. For instance, 1) joy in various trials (1:2; Matt.5:10-12); 2) patience unto perfection (1:4; Matt.5:48); 3) ask, and it will be given (1:5; Matt.7:7-8); 4) do not be angry (1:20; Matt.5:22); 5) be merciful (1:27; 2:13; Matt.5:7); 6) be without partiality (2:1-8; Matt.5:43-47); 7) match one’s words with deeds (2:14-26; Matt.7:21-23); 8) the condition of fruit is decided by that of the tree (3:12; Matt.7:15-20); 9) make peace (3:17-18; Matt.5:9); 10) prayers shall be granted (4:2-3; Matt.5:15-18; Matt. 7:7-11); 11) Do not speak evil of or judge one another (4:11-12; Matt.7:1-5); 12) do not confide in money (5:1-6; Matt.6:19-21); 13) do not swear (5:12; Matt.5:33-37);

3.    According to the emphasis of this epistle, namely, “man is justified by works”, it is complementary to the view that “man is justified by faith” in the Epistle to the Galatians. The former emphasizes the works after one is saved, and the latter emphasizes the faith before one is saved. The two books present different points of view, and yet are not contradictory. One mentions that the true faith will definitely yield works, and the other indicates that the works without faith cannot make one saved.


IX. Key Verses


But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (1:22).

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (2:26).

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom” (3:13).

Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (4:17).

And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him upThe effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (5:15-16).


X. Key Words


“Trial, try, temptation” (1: 2, 3, 12, 13, 14);

“Wisdom” (1:5; 3:13, 17);

“Doers of word, have works, good conduct” (1:22, 23, 25; 2:14, 17, 18, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25, 26; 3:13; 4:17);

“Faith” (2:1, 5, 14, 17, 18, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 26; 5:15);


XI. Outlines of the Book


Theme: the True Faith.

A.   Introduction and greeting (1:1);

B.   The various necessary manifestations of the true faith (1:2-5:20):

1.    Faith and the attitude towards trials and temptations (1:2-18);

2.    Faith and the attitude towards God’s word (1:19-25);

3.    Faith and the attitude towards others (1:26-2:13);

4.    Faith and works (2:14-26);

5.    Faith and words (3:1-12);

6.    Faith and lusts(3:13-4:10);

7.    Faith and self-reliance (4:11-5:6);

8.    Faith and various circumstances (5:7-20);

a.  Be patient in tribulations (5:7-11);

b.  Do not defend oneself in when one is unjustly treated (5:12);

c.   Make intercessions for one another in sickness (5:13-18);

d.  Make one who wanders from the truth turn from the error (5:19-20);


── Caleb HuangChristian Digest Bible Commentary Series

   Translated by Mary Zhou