Introduction to James
This first of the general epistles was written by James, who had become the acknowledged leader of the Jerusalem church. He presided at the Jerusalem council of Acts 15, and was identified as the one from whom certain men had been sent to Antioch (Galatians 2:12). Paul reported to James in Acts 21:18-19.
James could not have been the brother of John and son of Zebedee, of course, for that James had been martyred (Acts 12:2). In fact, Paul called him “the Lord’s brother” in Galatians 1:19, thus identifying him as one of the half-brothers of Jesus (see Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). As such, he did not believe on Christ until after His resurrection (John 7:5), but then the risen Christ met him (I Corinthians 15:7) and this was apparently when he was converted. He and his brothers were with Mary and the apostles in the upper room (Acts 1:13-14). He quickly rose to a position of leadership, particularly after the apostles began to preach in other regions. Paul said, in Galatians 2:9, that “James, Cephas, and John” were “pillars” of the Jerusalem church. When Peter was miraculously delivered from prison, he told those who had been praying for him to report the event to James (Acts 12:17).
The epistle of James, like those of Peter and the book of Hebrews, was written to the Christian Jews of the “dispersion”—that is, those away from Jerusalem and scattered around the Roman empire. Although he himself stayed in Jerusalem (and, according to Josephus, was martyred there in A.D. 62), he felt an obligation to all other believing Jews, wherever they were. The letter was apparently written as a general letter to be circulated or copied wherever such believers could be found.
It was probably the very earliest epistle, obviously written before the Jerusalem council of Acts 15, and probably before any of Paul’s epistles. It was certainly important, James realized, that these young Christians should have some written guidelines. Therefore, James undertook the task. It is a fascinating testimony to God’s grace that James, who had been an unbelieving brother of Jesus, was chosen to write the first inspired book to believing Jews, and Paul, the chief persecutor of the early church, was chosen to write the first epistle to believing Gentiles.
James stresses the necessity of good works as evidence of saving faith (James 2:14-26), but he also is very clear that works in themselves do not suffice for salvation (James 1:15; 2:10; 4:17), for no one is without sin. He also recognizes the deity of Christ (James 2:1), the new birth (James 1:18,21) through God’s Word, and the promised second coming of Christ (James 5:8).