James 1: 1 NLT
“This letter is from James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am writing to the “twelve tribes”—Jewish believers scattered abroad.
Today we begin reading through the Book of James. It’s a very practical book telling us how to live well. But, before we get started, I thought it would be interesting to know a little more about James, himself. Most of the information I’m going to share is from Charles R. Swindoll’s new testament commentary, Living Insights: James. For the most part, I am summarizing what he has written. If I directly quote him, I’ll use quotation marks and include the page number.
Just who is James? There are several James mentioned in the New Testament. The first one I’ll mention is James, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John. He was part of the three men who Jesus seemed to rely on for leadership – Peter, James and John. They were the three men who experienced the transfiguration of Jesus, and were also asked to accompany Jesus while he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. That James was the first of the disciples to be martyred around AD44. However, most Bible scholars think the Book of James was written by Jesus’ half-brother James, the natural son of Mary and Joseph.
“No second-born son or daughter can possibly fathom what it must have been like to suffer second child syndrome with an older brother who never sinned. But James did. Can you even imagine? Jesus always came when his mother called him the first time. He always washed his hands properly before supper. He always did his chores quickly and with delight. He always obeyed. Then there was James, born with a sinful nature like the rest of us., living in the shadow of a big brother who was God in the flesh. Being far from perfect, younger brother James had a built-in problem right from the start.
I suppose James would have been happy to see Jesus leave home when he did. But then his already ‘strange’ older brother came back to their hometown claiming to be the long-awaited fulfillment of messianic promises (Luke 4: 16 – 21). How do you think James felt toward his older brother then? We don’t have to wonder. John 7: 5 says, “Not even his brothers were believing in him.” And Mark 3: 21 tells us that his family “went out to take custody of him; for they were saying, ‘He has lost his senses’”. (pages 8-9)
I expect as you read what Swindoll wrote, you were agreeing with what he said. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in a family with a perfect person. Do you? So, when did James decide that Jesus was really the Messiah? The Apostle Paul gives us a clue in 1 Corinthians 15: 3 – 8:
“I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. 4 He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. 5 He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. 6 After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him.” NLT
It appears that Jesus saw James personally after his resurrection. The Bible doesn’t record that conversation, but I imagine it was very special for James. James is then mentioned several times in Acts 1 through 9 when he experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and then the growth of the early church during persecution.
From that point on, James was a dedicated follower of Jesus, and led the church in Jerusalem. James would have been there when Saul, the young man who had been zealously persecuting the church, was brought by Barnabas to assure the church that Saul (later known as Paul) was a true believer. Can you see what might have been going through James’ mind as he had to decide whether to accept this ‘scary’ person into the church? James knew he hadn’t believed Jesus either, so now he needed to accept anyone who turned from unbelief to accepting Jesus. Bible scholars think that James wrote the Book of James, the first book to be written in the New Testament, about 10 to 15 years after Paul’s conversion.
The church in Jerusalem tended to follow the Old Testament Laws. They did believe that Jesus died and rose again, and was the Saviour. They didn’t believe that following the Law was what saved you; however, they did think that following many of the laws were appropriate. When Gentiles, especially those who were reached during Paul’s missionary journeys, became Christians, many of the Jews felt they should also keep many of the laws of the Old Testament. There was a big meeting in Jerusalem when Paul pled the case for the Gentiles. James was the one who eventually spoke the final decision of the church. Acts 15: 13 – 21
“When they had finished, James stood and said, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Peter has told you about the time God first visited the Gentiles to take from them a people for himself. 15 And this conversion of Gentiles is exactly what the prophets predicted. As it is written:
16 ‘Afterword I will return
and restore the fallen house[b] of David.
I will rebuild its ruins
and restore it,
17 so that the rest of humanity might seek the Lord,
including the Gentiles—
all those I have called to be mine.
The Lord has spoken—
18 he who made these things known so long ago.’ (Amos (: 11 – 12)
19 “And so my judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead, we should write and tell them to abstain from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating the meat of strangled animals, and from consuming blood. 21 For these laws of Moses have been preached in Jewish synagogues in every city on every Sabbath for many generations.”
James continued to lead the church in Jerusalem until he was martyred around AD66. There was a lot of persecution from the Jewish leaders who wanted to stamp out this new religion. It was also a time when Claudius, the Roman Emperor, also wanted to keep the Jews under control, and definitely this new church that had sprung up. “Jewish businesses were boycotted. Jewish children were mocked and thrown out of schools. Time was harsh and life was grim. So Jewish Christians … seem to have been living under a double diaspora. Not only were they subject to Roman ire because of their Jewishness; many had been driven out of the Jewish communities themselves because of their faith in the Messiah! More than any others, Jewish believers lived without roots and traveled outside Judea looking for a place to call home. Many of these men and women found themselves in a social and religious limbo.” (page 13)
When James wrote this book, he didn’t spend a lot of time explaining the doctrine of Christianity. He wanted to help this struggling new church understand how to live well in the middle of all this uncertainty and hard times. You see that in this first verse – “I am writing to the “twelve tribes”—Jewish believers scattered abroad.”
I also find the way he introduces himself interesting – “James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”. He could have introduced himself as James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem. Words to make sure they knew he was “the boss”. But instead, he introduces himself as the most lowly of people in that Roman culture – a slave. As we read through James, we’ll see how he encourages us to be humble in the way we think and in what we do in our everyday lives.
God chooses the most unlikely people to represent him in our world. Jesus chose 12 disciples who were not the most educated, influential people in their country – fishermen, a tax collector … God chose James, Jesus’ half-brother who had issues with Jesus for a long time, to lead the church in Jerusalem and spread the gospel to thousands of Jewish people. Sometimes, we think we are not that important. We expect our pastors and other leaders to speak for us. James realized that God uses everyone, no matter how unlikely we think we are. In our devotions over the next while, we’ll see how God wants each of us to live and influence those around us in ways we never thought possible.
(Charles R. Swindoll, Living Insights: James, Tyndale House Publishers, 2014)
Our song for today is Make Me a Servant sung by Maranatha Singers.