James, Lesson 1: Introduction and Theme

James: Lesson 1

Introduction and Theme

Among the books of the New Testament, James has suffered much because it was one of the disputed books of the New Testament.   It also suffered because of its content (for example, does it teach that works save us?).

When Martin Luther was translating the Bible into German, he spoke poorly of many books in the Bible.  From the New Testament, Luther questioned whether James and Revelation should even part of the Bible.  From the Old Testament, as but one example, Luther questioned whether Esther and 2nd Maccabees should be in the Bible.  But eventually Luther recognized all the books, including the Apocrypha, as biblical and included them in all his translation of Scripture.  Luther even quoted from the book of James in the Large Catechism about the need to pray in faith (LC, Lord’s Prayer, 123).

From the early Church Fathers, we find allusions, if not direct quotations, from James.  From Clement, the 4th Bishop of Rome, in 96AD, we find several references: 1 Clement 10:1,6, 12:1-7, 17:2, 30:2, and 31:2.  Ignatius, a student of the Apostle John, quoted James in his letter to the Ephesians, 5:3.  Irenaeus–who was a student of Polycarp, who was a student of the Apostle John–refers to James two times in his work, Against Heresies: 4:13, 4 and 4:16, 2.  So we see from the earliest Church Fathers that they treated James as one of the books of Scripture.


The Author

The author of this epistle simply identifies himself as “James.”  Among the Apostles, we find two who are named James: the son of Zebedee and the son of Alphaeus.  James, the son of Zebedee, was martyred in 44 AD, a date most see as too early for when James was written.  We know little about James, the son of Alphaeus.

Church tradition and Eusebius in his Church History (2.1) list James, the step-brother of Jesus (Eusebius’ only mentions Joseph as James’ father), as the author of James.  This James saw Jesus after He rose from the dead (1 Cor 15:7) and later became a “pillar” (Gal 2:9) of the early Christian community in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17, 15:13-21, 21:17-18).  He is known as “James the Just,” a man of much piety and prayer.  He was martyred in 62 AD by order of the Jewish High Priest, Ananus (Josephus, Antiquities 20, 200).  James was the first of many ethnically Jewish bishops for the Church inJerusalem, until 135 AD, when ethnic Jews were deported fromJerusalem in 135 AD because of the Bar-Kokhba revolt.


Intended Readers

James wrote his epistle to “twelve tribes in the Dispersion.”  This referred to ethnically Jewish Christians who were living throughout the Mediterranean world.  This was known as the “Dispersion” or the “Diaspora.”  Perhaps, some of the readers may have even been former parishioners of James who had scattered because of Christian persecution (Acts 8:1, 11:19).



We don’t know exactly when James wrote his epistle.  We know for certain that he wrote it before 62 AD, when he died.  We also know that scattered communities of Jewish Christians were his intended readers, those who fled persecution in the mid-40s (Acts 12:1 and following).  This gives us an estimated date of around 50 AD.



Luther not only railed against James because of its content, but also because of its disorganization.  Because the epistle does not have any clear structural plan about the organization of its contents, that makes James a hard book to outline.  That is why if you were to examine various commentaries of James, you would find anywhere between twoto 25major divisions!

However, if we let James’ introductory words guide our overview, we can come up with his major themes.  James writes, “You know that testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have it full effect” (James 1:3-4).

    1. Opening Address (1:1)
    2. Introduces and Discusses Theme of Book (1:2-18)
    3. Faith Tested by Its Response (1:19-27)
    4. Faith Tested by being Impartial (2:1-13)
    5. Faith Tested by having Self-Control (2:14-3:18)
    6. Faith Tested by Resisting Worldliness (4:1-5:12)
    7. Faith Tested by Its Resort to Prayer (5:13-18)
    8. Conclusion (5:19-20)


Read James 1:1

–          Explore the focus of James’ introduction.  Note that he calls himself a slave (doulos) and does not mention his family ties to Jesus.


Read James 1:2-4, then 1 Peter 1:3-8, and Romans 5:1-5

–          Discuss the value and purpose of trial and suffering in the life of a Christian


James’ line of thinking on the value of trials:



–          Through trials, what is God preparing you for, so you may be “complete, whole, and lacking in nothing.”  What does this mean?


–          What does this imply about our need for trials in this fallen world?


Read James 1:5-8

James is building from a verse from the Apocrypha book of Wisdom: “For even if one is perfect among the sons of men, yet without wisdom that comes from You [that is, God] he will be regarded as nothing” (Wisdom 9:6).

–          Read 1 Corinthians 1:20-21.  Which type of wisdom is James referring to, worldly or godly?


–          Describe this wisdom another way.


–          If we are lacking this type of wisdom, what are we to do?



Excursus on being “double-minded” in our prayers

In a sense, we are all double-minded when it comes to God.  For we are both saint and sinner; we are redeemed and yet our sinful nature remains within us.  From that standpoint, every Christian is double-minded, as the Apostle Paul brings out so forcefully in Romans 7:15-20.

Read Romans 7:15-20

This is not the double-mindedness about which James is speaking.  James is referring to double-mindedness in our prayers.  James is asking, “Are we to approach God from our old sinful nature and its desires?”  The answer to that is, “No!”

Read Galatians 5:16-24

If we were to approach God in a double-minded way in our prayer, then we would be praying for what is sinful.  Even more, God would not even hear such a prayer.  For John 9:31 tells us: “God does not listen to sinners.”  That means God does not hear the prayer of an unbeliever.  That also means the same for the Christian if he were to approach God “double-mindedly,” that is, expecting to receive from God what his sinful nature wants.

In John 16:23-24, Jesus said to His disciples, “I assure you: whatever you ask the Father in My name, He will give you.  Until now, you haven’t asked for anything in My name.  Ask and you will receive, so your joy may be complete!”

Praying in the name of Jesus is not simply saying the sounds “in Jesus’ name,” as if the sound of the words in themselves had some magical power.  To pray in Jesus’ name is praying in a way that lines itself up with the faith given us.  That means it doesn’t seek something that goes against the will of God the Father.  In John 14:23, Jesus told His disciples, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.”  Jesus then told them why: “So the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

Praying in the name of Jesus is the prayer of true faith, the faith that wants to glorify God.  And so it is a prayer through Jesus and conformed by His Word.  For praying in Jesus’ name is submitting to God’s holy will.  It’s as Jesus prayed in the Garden, “Yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39).  And that, too, shapes our prayer.  For any other prayer is not a praying in Jesus’ name.

As a Christian, you have access to the Father through the Son because the Holy Spirit has brought you into a communion with the divine life of God.  This is a union and an intimacy that not only enables, but also gives you the confidence to speak, say, and ask.

So what do we say?  We say what our Lord says.  And what do we ask for?  We ask for what our Lord promises.  For then, we have said what He says, and asked for what He gives.  To this prayer, God’s answer is always, “Yes!”

That is the prayer of faith.  That is the prayer that is not “double minded” but comes from the faith given us.


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