Introduction: James

James  •  5 min. read  •  grade level: 10
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This is the earliest inspired epistle in the New Testament, written around A.D. 45. At that time, the Church was predominantly comprised of Jewish believers; Gentiles were just beginning to be saved and added to their number. As far as the apprehension of the full truth of Christianity is concerned, the Church was in a period of transition. Believers at that time had not entered into a full understanding of the faith that they had embraced, largely because the Apostle Paul's teachings, which sets forth "all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:2727For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. (Acts 20:27); Col. 1:2525Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; (Colossians 1:25)), had not been given to them yet. Consequently, they were not fully separated, in practice, from the Jewish order, of which the writer of Hebrews calls, "the camp" (Heb. 13:1313Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach. (Hebrews 13:13)). That epistle, which insists on a complete separation from Judaism, was not written until later—about A.D. 63. Jewish believers on the Lord Jesus had not entered into the meaning of His teaching in John 10:1-91Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. 2But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. 4And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. 5And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers. 6This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them. 7Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. 8All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. 9I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. (John 10:1‑9), which speaks of being led out of the Jewish "fold" into the full light and liberty of Christian privilege and service in His "flock" (John 10:1616And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. (John 10:16)).
Hence, these Jewish Christians were understandably still very much attached to their synagogues and that Jewish order of things. They clung tenaciously to the Law of Moses (Acts 21:2020And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: (Acts 21:20)), not knowing the heights of the heavenly position, calling, and destiny of the Church. They viewed themselves as a faithful and enlightened remnant of the Jewish people (i.e. Dan. 11:35; 12:335And some of them of understanding shall fall, to try them, and to purge, and to make them white, even to the time of the end: because it is yet for a time appointed. (Daniel 11:35)
3And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever. (Daniel 12:3)
) who had new hopes for the nation, centered in the Lord Jesus Christ, Israel's Messiah. Their hope was to see the kingdom of Christ established on earth according to the teaching of the Old Testament Prophets. This, they believed, would happen shortly.
We must keep this in mind in reading the epistle of James; things are viewed very much on a Jewish level of things, though they were believers on the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Purpose of the Epistle
This epistle is one of the Jewish-Christian epistles in our Bibles (Hebrews, James, 1st and 2nd Peter). These epistles were written to establish Jewish converts in various aspects of Christianity that they would naturally have problems with, in coming out of Judaism. In this epistle, James deals with certain Jewish questions, idiosyncrasies, and tendencies that were ingrained in their thinking and ways. Such "graveclothes" clung to these Jewish converts and were a hindrance in their Christian liberty and service. Thus, they needed to be put off. However, oftentimes those who are saved out of Judaism do not see those hindrances clearly and need the help of others in taking those things off. This was the case with the graveclothes that were on Lazarus. The Lord said to His disciples, "Loose him, and let him go" (John 11:4444And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go. (John 11:44)). Essentially, this is what James and Peter (who were ministers to the circumcision) do for their Jewish brethren in their epistles (Gal. 2:7-97But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter; 8(For he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:) 9And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. (Galatians 2:7‑9)).
While the things that James addresses have specific application to those with a Jewish background, the practical principles he touches on apply to all Christians from every era—whether Jew or Gentile. The practical character of the book is like “salt” that preserves the saints in separation from the world and from the temptations that press upon every Christian (Matt. 5:1313Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. (Matthew 5:13)). The book, therefore, is intensely practical, containing very little doctrinal truth. It is significant that there is not one reference to the Lord's work of redemption on the cross. Instead, James focuses on practical issues that were confronting his brethren.
The Importance of Living by Faith
James’ main purpose in writing the epistle was to emphasize to his fellow countrymen, who had received the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour, the importance of living by faith. Having come from the system of Judaism which was largely governed by sight and sound, they needed to learn to walk by faith and not by sight, which is an essential element of Christianity (2 Cor. 5:77(For we walk by faith, not by sight:) (2 Corinthians 5:7); Rom. 1:1717For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. (Romans 1:17); Gal. 3:1111But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. (Galatians 3:11); Heb. 10:3838Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. (Hebrews 10:38)). The epistle, therefore, focuses on the need for living by faith in the everyday circumstances of life.
Realizing that there was a high possibility that there were some among them who were not real at all, James addresses his audience as a mixed company of believers and mere professing believers. He emphasizes the importance of each proving the reality of their faith with conduct that befits a true Christian. He exhorts them to a practical walk that would manifest their faith and thus show that they were real believers. The key verse in the book is chapter 2:18—"I will show thee my faith by my works." Brother Nicolas Simon said that James was essentially saying, "Would the real believers please stand up!" In other words, it was time for those who truly had faith in our Lord Jesus to identify themselves among the mass of merely professing Christians by showing it in their lives. Since there are more merely professing Christians connected with Christianity today than ever before, this epistle has never been needed more than at this present time.
True faith will manifest itself in a believer's conduct in the everyday circumstances of life. This being the case, James touches on situations that we all encounter in our daily lives, and shows how they are to be used as opportunities to validate our faith in Christ. In a sense, James is building on the teachings of the Lord Jesus who said, "By their fruits ye shall know them" (Matt. 7:2020Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. (Matthew 7:20)).
Outline of the Epistle
As mentioned, James touches on a number of areas of Christian living wherein faith is required and should manifest itself. If these situations in everyday life are met with faith, we will prove the reality of our faith to be real; the moral graces and virtues of Christianity will be seen in our lives as evidence of our faith.
FAITH proved by how we handle trials—with cheerful submission and confidence in the goodness of God (chap. 1:2-18).
FAITH proved by how we receive and respond to the Word of God—with obedience (chap. 1:19-27).
FAITH proved by how we treat others—with grace and kindness (chap. 2:1-26).
FAITH proved in our speech—with self-control (chap. 3:1-18).
FAITH proved by not being governed by the flesh, the world, and the devil—with holiness (chap. 4:1-17).
FAITH proved by how we handle injustices—with patience (chap. 5:1-13).
FAITH proved by our care for the sick (physically and spiritually)—with love (chap. 5:14-20).