James 3:13: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”
Two letters in the New Testament have the distinction of being written by a blood relative of Jesus. While most of the books are written by an apostle, or someone who was a close student of an apostle, we have these two letters who are written by Jesus’ own flesh and blood. This is interesting because we learn in John 7 that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him from the beginning. It is not hard to understand why. Try having the perfect Son of God as your older brother. Talk about having an inferiority complex! It must have been very difficult. And yet, after their brother rose from the dead, what other conclusion could they come to? He really was the Son of God, and because that was true, the only reasonable thing to do was to submit their lives to him. And so they did. His brothers became believers. James went on to hold a very important place in the church of Jerusalem. He was an elder there and appears to have been held in higher esteem than even Peter himself. Why that should be the case, we are not sure. But what we are sure of is that James became a fervent believer in his big brother, and the letter that we have handed down to us is evidence of that fact.
The letter of James is unique among the books of the New Testament because it has a layout that is quite different from other letters. For example, in Paul’s letters, they usually present a tightly argued piece of theology, followed by several chapters of application. But James is different in that it is not addressed to a specific church or to a specific individual, and the content of the letter is hard to categorize. Many people liken the book of James to a New Testament version of the book of Proverbs. They see the letter as a series of random pieces of wisdom that are strung together, that when put together make a letter about practical Christian living. Many see influence of the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount in James’ writing, but very few see a logical progression to the writing style.
I take a slightly different view of James’ composition. I did not come up with it myself…I was led to it by others. But once it was shown to me, it was like a key that unlocked the inner consistency of this letter.
I think there is a strong argument to be made that James is the first letter of the New Testament to be written. Because it is written to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations,” I believe it is written in a time before Gentiles became believers in Christ. It seems to me that the letter may have been written from Jerusalem and sent out to believers who had been scattered by the persecution we read of in Acts 7 and 8. As these new Jewish believers in Christ were cast out of Jerusalem, and back to the communities they originally lived in, they began to face opposition and persecution from the local synagogues. When these believers went back to these locations and preached about Jesus, some believed them and joined them. But many others did not. And because of the way Jewish communities were constituted at this time, to fall out of favor with the synagogue meant to lose your status in the community, your way of making a living, and all the sources of your family and communal life. To become a Christian in these Jewish communities was to enter into a life of suffering and poverty. The temptations for anger and revenge must have been strong.
If that is the case, then we know why James writes his letter and why he focuses so much on having joy in the midst of trials. These new Christians are suffering for their faith in Christ—they are suffering at the hands of the people who used to be their friends and family and religious leaders. Those same people have now turned against them and are persecuting them. How does one live their faith under this pressure? I am arguing that this is the subject of the book of James.
With that framework in mind, the book of James then divides into four different sections. These are not random teachings on different subjects as some have suggested but is a coherent argument touching on different things. Section one covers the entirety of the first chapter. There James is telling his fellow believers to consider it all joy when they face trials of many kinds (1:2). The testing of their faith produces perseverance. If any of them lack wisdom about how they should handle these situations, they should ask God who gives wisdom generously (1:5). They should take pride in their humble circumstances and know that those who are richer and who are persecuting them will be humbled soon enough (1:9). As they face temptations under this pressure, they are not to assume that God is tempting them, but that it is their own evil desires within them that cause temptation (1:13-14). They are not to respond in anger (1:19-21) nor are they to lash out with words of revenge (1:22-26). The pure and faultless religion they should be pursuing is looking out for the less fortunate among them, and to keep themselves unstained by the world (1:27).
Section two comes in the second chapter and warns them against the dangers of hypocrisy. At the same time when they are being persecuted by those who are wealthier than themselves (perhaps their old friends and family within the Jewish synagogue), they are not to show favoritism to the rich in their own worship assemblies (2:1-7). How insincere would it be to be angry at the rich, and yet try to cater to them in their own communities? Instead, they should put their faith into practice and learn to trust God. Their faith is of no value if it is not followed up by action (2:14-26).
Section three then turns its attention to the role of teachers in the church. This is the longest section of the book and goes from 3:1 to 4:12. It may have been the case that certain teachers were stirring up this danger and this desire for revenge within the church. James warns that not many of them should strive to be teachers because those who teach will be judged more strictly (3:1-2). The tongue is a restless evil, and very few know how to control it (3:3-8). With our tongues we praise our God and Father, but then we also curse other people who have been made in God’s image (3:9-12). This should not happen. Good and bad cannot flow from the same source. Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. So, with that in mind, James asks, “who truly is wise and understanding among you?” (3:13) Those who are wise should show it by their good deeds and by their humility. Those who harbor bitterness of spirit and selfish ambition are showing themselves not to be wise (3:14-15). The wisdom that comes from heaven is pure and peace-loving (3:17). The cause of their fights and quarrels is their own evil desires (4:1). Instead, they should submit themselves to God, humbling themselves and trusting God to lift them up in his own time (4:7-10).
The final section of the letter goes from 4:13 to the end of chapter 5. Here James addresses those in the community who may be wealthier, and especially those who have businesses. James reminds people that no one knows the future and so no one should put their trust in their wealth (5:13-17). They should not oppress their workers or deprive them of their rightful wage (5:1-6). Instead, they must live in patient trust, lifting all their concerns to God in prayer (5:1-12). James gives two examples of this kind of trusting prayer. One is having the elders anoint the sick with oil, trusting God to make the person well (5:13-16). The other is the historical example of Elijah, who prayed it would not rain for three years, and God heard his prayer (5:17-18).
The book of James is a favorite for many Christians, and it is not hard to understand why. It is a practical book on Christian living. In the letter, James invites us to ask God for wisdom. One could hardly do better than to begin that pursuit of wisdom by reading and meditating on this small book.