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Date: Approximately AD 48
Audience: Jewish Christians in the early church
James was a common name in New Testament times, as it is today. Two of Jesus’ twelve disciples were named James, but neither of them is the author of this letter. The author of this epistle is believed to be the James who is called the brother of Jesus, though he was technically his half-brother. Jesus and James both had Mary as their mother; James’s father was Joseph, while Jesus’ Father was God Himself. Sometimes people do not see the greatness in their own family members because they are with those people all the time and they can see their flaws. Although James was the brother of Jesus, he recognized Him as the resurrected Lord, for he refers to himself as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is very interesting and demonstrates James’s humility because he could have easily written that he was the “brother” or relative of Jesus, but instead positions himself as a servant.
We can tell from the New Testament that James occupied a prominent place in the church in Jerusalem, and he is mentioned several times in the Book of Acts. In Acts 1:13–14, we see that James was one of the people praying in the Upper Room, along with Peter, John, Mary, and others. In Acts 12:17, after an angel released Peter from prison (Acts 12:6–10), Peter wanted to make sure James knew he was free, mentioning him by name. Along with Peter, James led what is known as the Jerusalem Council, which discussed the relationship between Gentile followers of Jesus and the law of Moses. James summarizes his judgment on the issues in Acts 15:13–21. When Paul returned to Jerusalem after some of his travels, he made a specific point to visit James (Acts 21:17–19), along with the elders of the church, to tell them what God was doing through his ministry. In Galatians, Paul mentions seeing James again, on a separate journey. Obviously, James had close relationships with Peter and Paul and was instrumental in the beginnings of the early church.
James’s epistle has so much to say about living a successful Christian life and addresses a variety of topics important to growing Christians. This book teaches us not only that we need to read the Word of God and know what it says, but also that we need to act on it. According to H. A. Ironside, “The theme of the epistle is ‘A Living Faith,’ a faith that is evidenced by righteous living and godly behavior” (H. A. Ironside, James and 1 and 2 Peter: An Ironside Expository Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1947; repr. 2008], 12). I like to describe “a living faith” as a faith that works and produces good things in our lives and in the lives of others.
One of the primary messages of this book is that true faith in God leads to good works. We serve God and do good works because of our genuine love for Him. There are all kinds of practical ways we can demonstrate our faith as we love God by loving other people—helping them, supporting them, encouraging them, and saying positive things to them and about them. We should always remember that good works do not prove that a person believes in God or has a relationship with Him, but that when we have faith in God, good works follow. Faith has to come first, because when good works are done in faith, God gets the glory.
There are five chapters in the Book of James, and H. A. Ironside describes them this way:
James 1: A Victorious Faith
James 2: A Manifested Faith
James 3: A Controlling and Energizing Faith
James 4: A Submissive Faith
James 5: A Patient and Expectant Faith
In five chapters, James covers many topics we need to understand as Christians. They include why tests and trials are important to the development of our faith and how we are to view them and endure them, wisdom, the importance of not being double-minded, persevering through challenges, resisting the devil, growing in faith, and praying effectively. In addition, James writes at length about the tongue, explaining how powerful our words can be. They can become dangerous to ourselves and to others when we use them carelessly, angrily, or without thinking, but they can bless and do good when we use them well.
The Book of James does not teach us much about specific doctrines of the Christian faith, as some epistles do, but offers us valuable lessons in practical Christian behavior and putting our faith into practice in the situations we face every day. For this reason, it is very important for us to read, study, and apply to our lives the truths and principles James provides for us. As you learn more about the Book of James, I pray that it will not only stir your faith in God but also inspire you to live righteously in practical ways and to do good works because of your love for Him and desire to glorify Him in your life.
Key Truths in James:
- Even in the face of trials, we can find joy because trials produce good fruit in our lives, the fruit of endurance leading to spiritual growth and maturity.
- Our words are extremely powerful, so watching our words and using them carefully is of the utmost importance. Negative words can bring pain and destruction, but positive words bring blessing.
- We can resist the devil and he will flee from us.
- Sincere, heartfelt prayers are very powerful and effective.
The first chapter of James’s epistle is a call to spiritual maturity. It addresses a variety of subjects important to the Christian life, including maintaining a good attitude through trials, avoiding double-mindedness, being content, accepting responsibility when we face temptation and letting it teach us something valuable, controlling our anger, obeying God’s Word, carefully guarding our words, helping the poor, and being in the world without becoming like it.
Consider It Joy
James 1:2–4 addresses dealing with trials. James must have thought that learning to behave properly in the midst of our trials is very important since it is the first topic he addresses in this epistle. We don’t always like to think about the difficulties we face, but the Bible teaches us that they have great value in our lives. We don’t often feel joyous when facing difficulties, but we can consider them to be so if we know what they produce in our lives after they have done their work in us. People frequently tell me that their trials have made them stronger and better than they were prior to them.
We can compare our trials and difficulties to a woman in labor. She feels pain while delivering a child, yet she simultaneously feels joy because she knows what the final outcome will be. Toward the end of her pregnancy, she actually prays for her labor to begin. Even though she knows it will be difficult, she knows that the sooner it starts, the sooner she will have her baby. She is ready to endure the hardship in order to reap the reward. We know that the joy is greater than the pain, because in a couple of years many women choose to endure all the pain again for the joy of having another child.
Just as a mother begins to long and even pray for her labor to start because she does not want to be pregnant anymore, we can reach the point where we are so tired of living the way we have been living—in fear, anger, or jealousy; with our emotions up and down all the time; struggling to make decisions instead of standing firm in faith—that we are ready for something to help us get a breakthrough and move us toward the next place of spiritual growth. Often, God uses trials to do that. So if you are ready to leave your old ways of living behind, you can pray, “God, let my labor begin.” It may be painful for a while, but the joy that will ultimately come to you will be worth it.
During times of trial we grow spiritually, and we become stronger. Trials also develop the character of Christ in us and bring out of us endurance, steadfastness, and patience, which are all powerful qualities that Jesus displayed and that we should deeply desire. No matter what we face, God will always work it out for our good if we go through it with the right attitude.
Embracing difficulty, rather than despising it, is challenging for most of us. We tend to resist it, struggle against it, and look for some way to get out of it. Although this is a natural response, it is not the best one. The better thing to do is pray that you can endure whatever comes with good temper, trust God to deliver you at the right time, and believe that He will cause good to come out of it. It may help you to tell God exactly how you feel about what you are going through and also voice your trust in Him. God is good, and we can be assured that whatever happens to us will work out for our good and help us grow spiritually if we will let it.
Our attitude during times of trials and difficulties plays a part in determining how long they will last and what we will get from them. We can waste our pain, or we can let it become our gain.
If you believe God is always working for your good—even through tough times—the day will come when you will be very glad you stopped resisting and running from difficulties and learned how to walk through them with God, all the way to victory. God will not leave you stuck in your troubles. You are going through them, and you will have a great testimony and be able to help others through their struggles when you get to the other side. We all want a testimony, but we should remember that the word begins with test! Without the test, there will never be a good testimony.
Let me encourage you to always focus on the strength you are gaining rather than the opposition you are facing. Let the trouble you encounter be an opportunity to exercise your faith, and that faith will become stronger. The stronger our faith is, the less any kind of trouble bothers us. We need to be able to say with the apostle Paul, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:12–13 NIV).
The Amplified Classic version of Isaiah 41:10 says, “Fear not [there is nothing to fear], for I am with you; do not look around you in terror and be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen and harden you to difficulties, yes, I will help you; yes, I will hold you up and retain you with My [victorious] right hand of rightness and justice.” If God Himself strengthens us and hardens us to difficulties, the trials that upset us now will not bother us again in the future. Every time one trial hardens us, we can bear the next one with greater strength.
Also in Isaiah 41, verse 15 says, “Behold, I will make you to be a new, sharp, threshing instrument which has teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and beat them small, and shall make the hills like chaff” (AMPC). This verse teaches us that God wants us to grow up. Spiritual babies need spiritual milk, but as we grow spiritually, He wants to give us “meat”—and we will need to be like a “sharp, threshing instrument which has teeth” in order to handle it. Trials help us grow out of spiritual infancy toward spiritual maturity. God will never give us more than we can bear, but He will try to help us grow.
One thing God wants to do in us when we go through trials is teach us to take our eyes off of ourselves and focus instead on what we can do for other people and for Him. Isaiah 41:17 says, “The poor and needy are seeking water when there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. I the Lord will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them” (AMPC). The difficulties we face help us grow and become vessels fit for God’s use, so He can work through us to help other people.
The first word of James 1:2 is consider, and it is such an important word that we need to look closely at it. Considering something is related to our thought process about it, so this one word teaches us a lot about reaching the point where our trials and tests become a source of joy to us. If we can train our minds to think of trials as seeds that will ultimately bring a harvest of joy, we’ll be on our way to experiencing the joy they can bring to our lives. According to James 1:3–4, trials produce endurance, spiritual maturity, and inner peace, so we are “completely developed” in our faith, lacking nothing. These are all powerful character traits that Jesus displayed and that we should deeply desire. They enable us to reach our goals and live in God’s plan for our lives. They all carry the idea that we need the ability to go through difficult things trusting God, allowing Him to do in us the work that needs to be done, without giving up.
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