This little book was written by James, the half-brother of Jesus and a leader in the church at Jerusalem. Despite its connection to Jesus and the early church, James has never enjoyed the devotion and praise of books like Romans or Galatians. Yet its impact and place in Scripture cannot be denied. While Hebrews was written to discourage Christians from returning to Judaism, James was written to correct bad attitudes and actions that had arose during life’s difficult struggles.
According to Henry Thiessen1, James was written because of outward experiences, a bad spiritual state, and doctrinal errors of the Jewish Christians. They were being inundated by various trials and struggles, some of which were from their own people. Because of this, their spiritual state had deteriorated, and it was beginning to show in their actions and treatment of others.
This is why James is so practical and focused on doing good works. It also explains why the book has been looked upon as inferior and works focused. Even Martin Luther called it “a right strawy epistle.” He never felt comfortable with its emphasis on works especially when compared to other books in the New Testament. Honestly, this is probably why modern Christians have trouble with it.
According to James, faith is so much more than simply saying “I believe in Jesus.” Faith is action that treats others right and seeks to help those in need. Personally, I find James to be practical and desperately needed in today’s church and world. His “Sermon on the Mount” and Proverbs like approach makes it feel immanently practical. For James, faith must be relevant to life and elevate our everyday actions to Christlikeness in every way. Church, we need more of this in today’s church and in our communities. Instead of being inward focused the church must be outward focused and passionate about doing good works (James 2).
Interestingly, James contains features that make it unique in the New Testament. Eight times James quotes Leviticus 19, which deals with life and treatment of others.
1. James 2:1 Lev. 19:15
2. James 2:8 Lev. 19:18
3. James 2:9 Lev. 19:15
4. James 4:11 Lev. 19:16
5. James 5:4 Lev. 19:13
6. James 5:9 Lev. 19:18
7. James 5:12 Lev. 19:12
8. James 5:20 Lev. 19:17
Another interesting thing about James is that he seems to include ideas from at least 2 apocryphal books. These were books that were widely read by Jews in the first century but not considered Scripture. He includes ideas from a book called “Ecclesiasticus” (180 BC), also called Sirach, and a book called “The Wisdom of Solomon” (30 BC). This proves that James read these books and by inspiration included some of their teachings. James was clearly a widely read individual which makes this little book even more relevant for the church.
Overall, James is an amazing little book full of practical wisdom which is meant to be lived. Let me encourage you to consider reading it again and putting its lessons into daily life.
1 Introduction to the New Testament, Henry C. Thiessen, pg. 276.