Today’s post is adapted from Dr. Karen H. Jobes’ Letters to the Church, available in MasterLectures, a new video-streaming platform that offers unlimited access to thousands of videos on the Bible and theology.
The Book of James is a short letter full of practical insights into Christian living.
James was a prominent leader of the early church. He uses his letter to expound on the true nature of faith and teach about the behavior and perspectives believers should embody.
His letter is packed with powerful lines and memorable imagery. It embodies many of the essential teachings and beliefs of early Christianity.
Let’s take a look at ten of the key themes in this short New Testament book.
1. God is the source of all wisdom
The Greek word for wisdom (sophia) occurs four times in the letter of James (1:5; 3:13, 15, 17). Wisdom is not a topic or theme of the book of James, but it is an assumed value essential for Christian living and under which all the various topics of the book are subsumed. James applied Jewish wisdom as it was developed and controlled by the teachings of Jesus to other practical topics for the wise Christian believer to take to heart in his or her life.
James also considers the teachings of Jesus, which took the understanding of the law to a new level, and brings this rich tradition to the issues he felt were pressing at that moment, and which retain their significance for life as a Christian today.
2. Testing and trials
Our lives are full of trials. James understands the true goal of trials to be perseverance. And perseverance works toward spiritual maturity and wholeness, which James implies are worthy goals for Christians. He says that eternal life (“the crown which is life”) is the reward of those who persevere under trial.
Professor Robert Wall says:
“[James] is a book written for readers whose faith in God is threatened by a daily struggle with hardship. This ‘testing of faith’ is provoked by a variety of external and historical circumstances or ‘trials.’ Yet more importantly, every test occasions a theological crisis, when the believer is more easily deceived or confused about who God is and how God acts.”
The one who successfully perseveres under testing is the one who does not let their own evil desire drag them into the downward spiral of sin and death (1:13–15). Those desires for evil are contrary to every good and perfect gift, which comes from the Father who gives life through the word of truth (1:16–17).
James invites his readers to live wisely by choosing life rather than death.
3. Wealth and oppression
Socioeconomic disparity, both in society and in the church, seems to have been a major concern in James’s mind as he wrote this letter.
He introduces the topic by leveling the differences between the “humble” and the rich when viewed from the perspective of spiritual realities (1:9–11).
The humble believer—even though they may be dismissed by society—has received every privilege from God, who gives without consideration of one’s material resources.
Rich believers have been humbled, because no amount of wealth could buy what they have received from God in Christ; therefore, their resources are worthless in view of the gospel and can be no source of pride within the Christian community.
4. Material things will not last
The poor, without material resources, have also received the riches of God’s grace in Christ.
Furthermore, the rich and poor are alike in another way—both will pass away.
Whatever protection the rich think their wealth will afford against the ups and downs of life, allowing them to live in relative luxury, is fleeting and temporary—their lives are like wildflowers that have a short time of glory and then wither and pass away.
In other words, in light of spiritual realities, financial resources or the lack of them are irrelevant to one’s standing with God and one’s inevitable future. For this reason, they should not be a defining issue in the social dynamic of the Christian church.
5. The unjust rich
James does, however, issue a prophetic denouncement of those rich who have accumulated their wealth by the oppression and exploitation of others (5:1–6).
The harsh pronouncement of their coming misery suggests that even self-professing Christians who have so unjustly earned their wealth at the expense of others have missed the point of the gospel and will suffer judgment not different from the unbelieving rich.
By putting the accumulation of money above love for others, such people are the “adulterous people” (4:4) who stand in enmity against God because of their friendship with the world. The very wealth on which such people rely will be the witness against them.
6. Everything belongs to God
All of James’s discussion of wealth is intended to put the Christian’s resources, no matter how little or how much, under God’s sovereignty.
To plan to do business and make money apart from recognition of God’s control over one’s life speaks of an evil arrogance that is incompatible with spiritual maturity (4:13–16).
In our times of enormous corporate scandal and financial scams from which certain people have gained extreme wealth, issues of rich and poor continue to entangle the church. James expects those with resources to do more than have pity on others who live in poverty and to do something to provide for their food and shelter (2:14–16). Christians of poor nations indict the North American church for its lack of concern about clean water and adequate food in the poverty-stricken nations. The enticement of wealth is still a great danger to Christians today.
While favoritism may seem like a small infraction, James points out that showing favoritism, especially in the Christian community, is breaking the royal law, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This command is second only to loving God wholeheartedly.
Recognizing that the “royal law” sums up all of the commandments that govern relationships between people, James points out, “If you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (2:9–10).
Just as adultery and murder violate love for neighbor, so does favoritism. And then, as now, an inordinate valuing of those who possess material riches drove favoritism.
Rich people, whether understood as fellow believers or unbelieving visitors, should especially not be shown favoritism in the gatherings of the Christian community (2:1–13). Their show of wealth in the way they dress is not reason to receive more honorable treatment in the community. Similarly, the poor person should not be dishonored or treated as lesser because of the way they dress.
All believers and visitors should be welcomed alike, without regard for wealth. Anything else violates the great command of love for one’s neighbor.
8. Godly speech
One of the New Testament’s foremost ethical concerns is how people, especially God’s people, use words. Speech is the primary way in which we interact with others, and it shapes our relationships day by day throughout our lives. James is particularly concerned with godly speech and lays out some principles:
- Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger (1:19).
- The religion of those who do not have control over their mouths is worthless (1:26).
- Teachers are held especially accountable for what they say, and for that reason James cautions that not many among his readers should presume to teach (3:1–2).
- Although the tongue is a small part of the human body, it is the part that steers the course of the whole of one’s life (3:3–5
- A Christian must not presume to praise the Lord while cursing others (3:9–12). Godly speech is consistently wholesome.
- Those who speak slanderously to accuse someone of violating God’s law is breaking the law themselves (4:11–12).
- Christians should not swear, that is, take oaths, by created things. A simple yes or no should be as binding as any oath, for keeping one’s word is one’s integrity (5:12).
Then, as now, Christians lie, break promises, spread gossip, violate confidences, and use their words to promote themselves and put down others. James wants his readers to understand that what a person says is an expression of what that person is.
9. Faith and good deeds
A faith that can look on others in need of food and shelter and pronounce a blessing without doing something to help provide their physical needs is not the kind of faith that saves (2:14–17).
A faith that consists of mental assent to doctrinal statements but has no outward expression in life is not the kind of faith that saves (2:18–19).
James gives two telling examples of faith that was expressed in action: Abraham and Rahab.
- The kind of faith that Abraham had (which was reckoned as saving faith) was the kind of faith that motivated his action to obey God even against all human reason (2:21–24).
- And Rahab’s faith motivated her to put her own life at risk as she harbored and protected the spies who were God’s people (2:26).
James chose two examples of deeds expressing faith that have nothing to do with the law of Moses. Abraham lived centuries before Moses brought the law of the covenant to the people. And Rahab was a Gentile who had most likely not even heard of the law at the time she acted.
These examples indicate that James is not directly engaging Paul, who spoke of the impotence of observing the law of Moses for salvation.
In fact, James may have chosen these examples to avoid being read against Paul’s teaching of salvation by faith alone. James would agree that it is faith in Christ that saves; Paul would agree that such faith in Christ must result in behavior that expresses the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:13–26).
10. The Law
James does not directly refer to the law of Moses. He refers to the law in other ways:
- He speaks of “the perfect law that gives freedom” (1:24; 2:12).
- In 2:8 he refers to “the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” This is one of the two commands that Jesus said summed up all the Law and Prophets (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27).The faith that saves is a faith that motivates deeds of love for neighbor, such as providing for the physical needs of the poor (2:14–17), looking after orphans and widows (1:27), taming the tongue from hurting others (3:1–12; 4:11), desisting from fights and quarrels (4:1–3), and turning others back to the truth (5:19–20).
James’s vision for Christian morality and ethics moves beyond a legalism that demands compliance with individual commandments, applying Jesus’ teaching that all of the commandments can be summed up in love for neighbor and love for God.
As Jewish people came to faith in Jesus as the Messiah and realized that it was his death and resurrection that saved them from their sins, a natural question would be what “laws” they might still need to observe.
James, following Jesus’ teaching, completely transposes the ethical basis of Christian faith from any form of legalism to the more demanding law of loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
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This post is adapted from Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles by Karen H. Jobes.