Letter to Jewish believers

From James, the brother of Jesus

What must it have been like to grow up with Jesus as a brother? Now there’s a reason for some serious sibling rivalry! In a devout Jewish home during the first century, the Scriptures are recited from memory, and the faith is celebrated in festivals that provide a rhythm to life.

Then one day at the synagogue Jesus, a lay person, gets up and starts preaching, healing the sick, and casting out demons. Some people in the community are calling Him a lunatic. Others think He has made a deal with the devil. Even Jesus’ own family tries to interrupt His public displays on several occasions because they want to protect Him and guard the family from shame.

The spread of Christianity to the world

As an adult son, it is James’s responsibility to defend the family honor. At first, James is not convinced that his brother is the Savior. So what turns this skeptic into a passionate believer and the prominent leader of the Jerusalem church? After the crucifixion, when he sees the risen Jesus with his own eyes, James’s doubts disappear.

Later, at a time when the church is divided over how to incorporate Gentile believers into the formerly all-Jewish group, James steps forward and shows great leadership. He boldly says, “So here is my counsel: we should not burden these outsiders who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). Thus James endorses Paul’s ministry, and with his leadership the brother of Jesus enables the spread of Christianity to the world.

Outsiders are invited

In this letter, James is writing to his fellow Jewish Christians scattered throughout the world in the first century. He is concerned with preserving a connection between his Jewish heritage and the movement begun by Jesus. James does not see himself as a leader of a new religion, but as a Jew who follows the Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King.

Like Peter and Paul, James views the gospel as the fulfillment of promises in the Hebrew Scriptures. But now, through the work of Jesus, outsiders are invited to follow as well. James takes honoring the law very seriously; in this letter, he encourages all believers to simply practice what they preach.

James 1:6

Wisdom, as James understands it, is the ability to live life well and make good decisions. Wisdom doesn’t come from old age or hard knocks.

Wisdom begins with knowing and depending absolutely on God, who is never stingy when it comes to wisdom for those who seek it. He supplies all the wisdom we need when we ask. But when we try to go it alone — without God — trouble is around the corner.

James 1:23

God the Father is the giver of all things and is looking for every opportunity to bless us. But many people have difficulty trusting and receiving good things, even when those things come from God.

The problem is that we not only have trouble trusting God’s work in our lives, but we also don’t always respond to God’s voice. People often hear the Scriptures but don’t really listen. People store truths in their brains but never put them to use. For James, the only good religion is religion lived out every day.

James 2:8

We are often mesmerized by the rich, powerful, and beautiful people of the world. We dream of associating with them; but when we focus our attention on the fashionable people of this world, it is often at the expense of those who need it the most. Ignoring the needy and favoring the wealthy is completely contrary to the example Jesus modeled for us while walking on earth.

God often chooses those who are the poorest materially to be the richest spiritually. We should welcome everyone equally into God’s kingdom, even if it means upsetting boundaries like class and race. The rule is simple: we should treat others in the same way we want to be treated. God does not play favorites, and neither should we.

James 2:14

James’ focus on works is frequently cited as a contradiction to other messages in the Bible. On the one hand, it appears James is saying that salvation is achieved by works; on the other, writers such as Paul emphasize that salvation comes by faith alone, not works of the law (Galatians 2). Look carefully and you’ll see that Paul and James are talking about different issues.

Paul is in the middle of a debate with Jewish Christians over whether Gentiles must live like Jews to enter the family of faith. He says that no one is made right with God by performing the works of the law. Instead, all people are made right by faith, thanks to God’s grace. For James the situation is entirely different.

The works he is talking about refer to God’s people helping the poor, not whether non-Jews must live like Jews. He’s concerned about a shallow, insincere, and hypocritical faith. Paul describes the root of salvation; a person is saved by God’s grace received through faith. James is explaining the fruit of salvation; saving faith is a faith that works.

James 5:19

Why should we bother to pray if God already knows what we are going to ask for? Prayer involves so much more than making personal requests. It connects us with God and works to bring our wills into conformity with His.

How, then, should we pray? First, James tells us to pray in community, not just by ourselves and for ourselves. When we pray together, life is shared and community is born. We also confess our sins, not just to God, but to each other. Through this vulnerable transparency, God knits souls together in authentic community, and we discover the true benefit of prayer.