Read the Passage: James 1:1-18
Authorship and Date – There are four men in the Bible named “James,” which is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name “Jacob.” These are: (1) James the apostle, the son of Zebedee and brother of John (cf. Matt. 4:21; 10:2; 17:1; Mark 1:19); (2) James the apostle, known as James the Less, the son of Alphaeus (cf. Matt. 10:3; Acts 1:13); (3) James the father of the apostle Judas (cf. Luke 6:16; John 14:22; Acts 1:13); and (4) James the brother of Jesus and of Jude (cf. Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3). While the book of James was written by “James” (Jas. 1:1), it is unclear which James is in view. Since James the Less and James the father of Judas are minor biblical characters, they are not usually considered to be candidates for authorship. James the brother of John was martyred in ca. AD 44 (cf. Acts 12:2), which is probably too early to make him the author of this letter. This leaves James the brother of Jesus as the probable author—a notion supported by both contextual and grammatical evidence. Indeed, history records that although he initially rejected Jesus as Messiah (cf. John 7:5), James later believed and became leader of the Jerusalem church. Since James was martyred in AD 62 and does not mention the Jerusalem council of AD 49 in this letter (cf. Acts 15), this book was likely written just prior to AD 49 from Jerusalem, making it one of the earliest of the NT books.
Theme and Purpose – The book of James was written in order to give moral and theological instruction to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (Jas. 1:1). This likely refers, at least in part, to the Jewish believers who had been scattered throughout the Roman empire (cf. Acts 8:1) on account of the unrest that arose in Jerusalem at the time of the stoning of Stephen (~AD 34) and later at the martyrdom of James the apostle (~AD 44). In tone and structure, the book of James is quite similar to book of Proverbs and, like all of the Old Testament wisdom literature, is difficult to outline. Note that although the book of James only contains 108 verses, the author quotes or alludes to the Old Testament at least 40 times, refers to the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matt. 5–7) roughly 20 times, and appeals to nature by way of illustration some 30 times. Additionally, there are 54 imperatives, or commands, in this short epistle.
Structure and Outline – While the book of James is notoriously challenging to outline, below is a suggested thematic structuring for this book:
- Religion (1:1–27)
- Faith (2:1–26)
- Wisdom (3:1–18)
- Humility (4:1–17)
- Behavior (5:1–20)
Trials and Wisdom (1:1–8)
After his greeting, in Jas. 1:2–4 James addresses the issue of suffering, encouraging his readers to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (Jas. 1:2). The term “joy” used here does not refer to the emotional state of happiness, but rather to a deep sense of being held secure in God’s grace regardless of the circumstances. Trials require patience, which, in turn, create spiritual maturity in individuals (cf. Jas. 1:4). In Jas. 1:5–8 James notes that the ability to have joy in the face of trials is a mark of wisdom. Wisdom, plainly defined, is the ability to practically apply God’s Word to daily living. In exhorting his readers to ask God for wisdom in faith (cf. Jas. 1:5), James is not referring to an extra-biblical procedure; rather he is describing the life of a maturing believer. In contrast, one who lacks faith and wisdom is “double-minded . . . unstable in all his ways” (Jas. 1:8).
Wealth and Poverty (1:9–11)
In Jas. 1:9–11 James moves from the topic of trials and wisdom to address the issue of wealth and poverty, a subject to which he will return later in this epistle. Yet, this passage is not totally disconnected with the previous one, as in both Jas. 1:2–8 and in Jas. 1:9–11 James is encouraging his readers to have a long-term perspective. This is an essential mindset in regard both to wealth/poverty and to trials/wisdom. With such a viewpoint the poor can “glory in . . . exaltation” (Jas. 1:9), and the rich can glory “in humiliation” (Jas. 1:10). Regardless of one’s current financial situation, all must realize it is but temporary, akin to the inevitability—as James writes—of grass fading and flowers withering (cf. Jas. 1:11). In a similar passage, Paul would later write, “There is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (1 Tim. 6:6–7).
Temptation and Sin (1:12–18)
Returning more directly to the theme of trials that were addressed in Jas. 1:2–4, in Jas. 1:12–15 James notes that the one who “endures temptation . . . will receive the crown of life” (Jas. 1:12). Such a believer is not double-minded and unstable. While trials can lead to spiritual benefits, then, James teaches that believers ought not to view trials as having been maliciously purposed by God. While God allows or even ordains that trials and sufferings occur, they only ever unfold within God’s sovereign will and for man’s ultimate good (cf. Exod. 4:11; 1 Sam. 2:6–7; Eccl. 7:13–14; Lam. 3:32, 38; Isa. 45:7; Rom. 8:28). It is tempting to blame God for our trials, especially for failed ones (cf. Gen. 3:12); yet, rather than faulting God, James teaches we must realize that temptation to sin within a trial ultimately comes from man’s “own desires . . . [which] gives birth to sin . . . and sin . . . brings forth death” (Jas. 1:14–15).
- What do you know about the book of James? What passages from this book have been either confusing or helpful to you in your walk with Christ?
- How do you react to suffering and various trials in your life? Can you testify that past sufferings and trials have led to spiritual maturity?
- What is biblical wisdom? How does wisdom differ from intelligence, if at all? Do you believe that most Christians display wisdom in life?
- Do most Christians have a biblical view of wealth and poverty? Which material status—either wealth or poverty—is more favored in Scripture?
- Why do so many people blame others, including God, for their trials, temptations, sufferings, and moral failures? Is there anything that God cannot do?