The Book of James—Exhortation to Practical Christianity
TRUE Christianity is practical. It is not merely a matter of believing or claiming to be a Christian. It is a matter of DOING God’s will in imitation of Jesus Christ. This fact Christ emphasized both by illustration and by his plain words: “Why, then, do you call me ‘Lord! Lord!’ but do not do the things I say?” Actually doing God’s will might be said to be the theme of James’ book, for in it he stresses the need for Christian works and conduct.—Luke 6:46-49, Kingdom Interlinear Translation.
Who was this James? Certainly he was not the apostle James, the son of Zebedee, for that James was martyred quite early. (Acts 12:2) The circumstances described by James suggest a much later date.
Jesus had a half brother by the name of James who, together with his brothers, became a believer after Jesus’ death and resurrection. (Acts 1:14) Jesus appeared especially to this half brother James after his resurrection. (1 Cor. 15:7) Too, this is without a doubt the James who was one of the foremost “pillars” in the early Christian congregation. (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; Gal. 1:19; 2:9, 12) But if this James was a half brother of Jesus, why does he not say so in his letter? No doubt out of modesty. Had he not opposed Jesus during all his earthly ministry? Besides, had not Jesus once asked, ‘Who is my brother?’ and then answered, “Whoever does the will of my Father”?—Matt. 12:48-50; Mark 3:21; John 7:5.
When did James write this letter? Since he makes no reference in it to Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 C.E., he most likely wrote it before that date. According to Josephus, this James was martyred about the year 62 C.E., and so it was probably written some time before that date.
The letter of James reminds us of the Sermon on the Mount. Like Jesus, James is fond of illustrating his points by reference to physical things, such as animals and vegetation, the sea and boats. Thus James’ remarks about a fig tree as not producing olives reminds us of Jesus’ words that figs cannot be gathered from thornbushes.—Matt. 7:16; Jas. 3:12.
Like Jesus, James also repeatedly draws on Hebrew Scripture characters to make his points, such as the need of works as exemplified by Abraham and Rahab the harlot; the rewards of endurance as observed from Job’s experience, and the efficacy of prayer as seen in Elijah’s case.—Jas. 2:14-26; 5:11, 17, 18.
Both Jesus and James counsel us to let our “Yes” mean Yes, and our “No” mean No (Matt. 5:33-37; Jas. 5:12); not to judge others (Luke 6:37; Jas. 4:11, 12); not to be hearers only but also to be doers of the word (Matt. 7:21-27; Jas. 1:22); confidently to expect Jehovah to answer our prayers (Luke 11:11-13; Jas. 1:5, 6, 17) and to rejoice in trials.—Matt. 5:10-12; Jas. 1:2.
PRACTICAL ADMONITION AND WARNINGS
James does not have much to say about doctrines, but he includes much practical admonition and many warnings. And he makes strong points by employing contrasts. His letter abounds in “imperatives,” that is, commands as to what we as Christians should or should not do.
Because James so stresses the need of works to prove our faith, some have concluded that he contradicts what the apostle Paul says about one’s being declared righteous by faith. But not so. Paul stressed that, not works of the Law, but faith in Jesus Christ is the basis for one’s being declared righteous by Jehovah God. James, however, might be said to add that faith must be proved to be alive by the consistent works it motivates.
Most practical is the warning James gives against letting selfish desires grow in our hearts, for they will lead to sin, and sin to death. Also, he counsels against having in our hearts bitter jealousy or envy against our brothers. Permitting such things, as well as sensual cravings, to dwell within us results in our displeasing Jehovah and having strife among ourselves.—Jas. 1:13-15; 3:14-16; 4:1-4.
Practical Christianity also requires that we watch our tongues. If any man seems to be religious but does not control his tongue his religion is in vain. (Jas. 1:26) Being imperfect we all stumble in the use of our tongue. Difficult as it is, we must strive to control our tongue because it can direct our course as a rudder can direct a ship. Then we will not be using it to bless God and at the same time to speak evil of men made in God’s image, which would be a most contradictory course of action.—Jas. 3:2-12.
Especially underscoring Christianity’s practical nature is James’ warning that we must have works to back up our faith. Belief is not enough. The devils also believe God exists and shudder. Those who hear but do not respond are deceiving themselves. Faith without works is dead, even as the body without the spirit or breath of life is dead. If a person is truly wise and understanding he will show it by fine works. In fact, the wisdom from above is identified by such fine works as purity, peaceableness and reasonableness.—Jas. 1:22-25; 2:14-26; 3:13, 17.
James warns us against the wicked world. To keep unspotted from it is a mark of the true religion. But to have friendship with it is to make one an enemy of God. (Jas. 1:27; 4:4) Part and parcel with such warnings are James’ remarks regarding the rich, whom some were favoring. Material wealth counts for nothing with God and in his due time he will bring woe upon those rich ones who oppress poor Christians and who defraud their workers.—Jas. 1:9-11; 2:1-4; 5:1-6.
Most practical also is James’ admonition: “God opposes the haughty ones, but he gives undeserved kindness to the humble ones.” If we humble ourselves God will exalt us. We must guard against bragging.—Jas. 4:6, 10, 13-15.
Helpful to us is James’ admonition regarding prayer. If we lack wisdom in coping with trials we should ask God for it, and we must keep on asking in faith. We are to pray for one another, confident that a righteous man’s prayers have much force.—Jas. 1:5-7; 5:13-18.
As Christians we need endurance and so we should view trials with joy because enduring trials will result in our becoming truly sound and complete. We are to exercise patient endurance even as the farmer does in awaiting harvesttime. And love also is important. Christians who love their brothers will not judge them, will not heave sighs against them.—Jas. 1:2; 5:7, 8.
Combined with all this practical admonition, James reveals a fine appreciation of Jehovah God. He is the Giver of every good gift and every perfect present; as Father of celestial lights he shows no shadow of turning; if we draw close to him, he will draw close to us; though he is the Judge able to save and to destroy, he is also “very tender in affection and merciful.” Such appreciation of Jehovah God should help us to be truly DOERS of God’s Word.—Jas. 1:17; 4:8, 12; 5:11.