The Epistle of James


Three persons named James are mentioned in the New Testament, and it has been a question which of these persons was the author of our Epistle. Some have thought that the author was James, the brother of John and the son of Zebedee; but this seems quite impossible, because he suffered martyrdom in the year 44, before the dispersion of the Jewish Christians which is mentioned in its opening words. It was after this James, the brother of John, was slain, and largely because of his death, that members of the church fled from Jerusalem and made their way beyond the bounds of Palestine. When the apostle James died they had not yet gotten even so far as Antioch, and it was consequently impossible then to write to the twelve tribes of Christians who were scattered abroad, as the author of this Epistle does. The apostle James, moreover, could hardly have been the author, for the reason that before his death the internal organization of the Christian church was not so perfectly developed as it appears to have been in this Epistle.

The indications are far more favorable to the view that the author of the Epistle is James, our Lord's brother, the oldest of those brothers of our Lord with whom we meet so frequently in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles. There were four of these, James, and Joses, Simon and Judas, and there were sisters belonging to the family also.

Paul, in his Epistle to the Galatians, speaks of James, the Lord's brother, as being the president of the church at Jerusalem. He was one of " the pillars." He had authority; his words were treated with respect such as belongs to no one else outside of the narrow apostolic circle; and it is probably to him that we must ascribe this Epistle.

There still remains a question that is quite interesting; namely, whether this James, the brother of our Lord, was identical with James the son of Alphaeus or James the Less, who was one of the apostles. In the apostolic circle there were two persons by the name of James. There was James the son of Zebedee, and there was James the son of Alphaeus; and it is a question whether the James who is the brother of our Lord was not also this apostle.

There are some reasons to believe that this was not so, and that the James of whom we read here was a third person, entirely distinct from either one of the two persons by the name of James who belonged to the apostles. One reason is this: that after Jesus had completed his choice of the apostles, the brethren of our Lord were yet unbelievers; they could not have belonged to the apostles, because the apostles were all known and numbered before the time of their conversion. Moreover, when we find that the brethren of our Lord are mentioned at all, we find them mentioned in such a way as to distinguish them from the apostles. For example, in that long-continued meeting for prayer in the upper room at Jerusalem, which ended at the day of Pentecost, we read that there were gathered the Twelve, who are mentioned by name, with the women and with Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren; where you see that his brethren are put last, are distinguished from the apostles, are evidently different persons. The James, therefore, who is the brother of our Lord, could not also have been one of the apostles. Why is it that the Lord's brethren, in this enumeration of the persons who are present and who are praying for the descent of the Spirit, are mentioned last? Why, simply because they were the last to come into the number of Christ's disciples. After the Twelve had been chosen they still remained unbelieving.

These brethren of our Lord, who had been accustomed to look up to Jesus in his life at Nazareth as simply the elder brother of the household, and to see him perform the common work of the carpenter, had of all men found it most difficult to realize the fact that he was the Messiah sent from God, the very Son of God, who had come to deliver the world.

It must have required a struggle of faith, it must have required a conflict with preconceptions, such as no others passed through. Let us not blame them too much. A prophet is not without honor save in his own country and in his own house, said Jesus, with probable reference to these very brethren of his.

The very nearness which we sustain to Christ in an external relation may make it the more difficult for us to apprehend his thoroughly spiritual nature; and so it was with them. Therefore, it was not until Christ's work was completed, and the greatest of miracles, the resurrection of our Lord from the dead, had taken place, that these brethren of our Lord bad their doubts removed, and came into the number of his disciples. It was only when Christ, the risen Saviour, in the fulness of a brother's love, appeared to this James singly, that James' doubts were all removed, that his skepticism was swept away, that his heart was broken with love for him whom up to that time he had refused to recognize as his Lord.

There is something very touching, it seems to me. in the way in which James begins his Epistle. He says. "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ." How much that meant for him who had been seated side by side with our Saviour, at the same board for many years, and who had refused to recognize him! And why is it that James, in the beginning of his Epistle, does not mention the fact that he is the brother of our Lord? Why, very much for the same reason that Paul does not think that he can take any glory to himself, since he persecuted the church of God. So James hardly thinks that he is worthy to be called the brother of our Lord; at least, he will not join that title to his name when he writes to others. Moreover, he w1ll not seem to claim a greater nearness to Christ than belongs to Christ's chosen apostles. There is great humility, I think, in the way in which James begins his Epistle. So, we have James, the brother of our Lord, not one of the Twelve, but one called after the Twelve, one converted after the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, as the author of this Epistle, and proclaiming himself to be, not an apostle of Christ, but simply a servant of God and of Jesus Christ our Lord. There yet remains another question with regard to the personality of James; namely this: whether the phrase "brother of our

Lord" means that James was a son of the same mother, or whether he was a cousin, or a son of the same father. The Roman Catholic Church has a great prejudice against the idea that Mary should ever have had other children than Jesus. The perpetual virginity of Mary is one of its most cherished dogmas. This dogma had its origin in the superior sanctity which that Church attaches to celibacy. It is thought derogatory to the mother of our Lord that she ever should have been the mother of other children. But the seventh verse of the second chapter of Luke's Gospel has the words, " Brought forth her firstborn son," and a candid reader would naturally infer from the fact of Jesus' being the " firstborn," that Mary had other children after.

Plato is, in a similar way, called by one of his Greek

biographers, Diogenes Laertius, the firstborn child;

yet, as a matter of fact, we know that Plato had two

brothers and a sister. So it is altogether probable that

Luke uses this word in its literal sense, and implies

that there were other children born to Mary and Joseph

after the birth of our Saviour. While the words in

Luke cannot be said to make it certain, they at least

show that, in the mind of the writer, there was no

prejudice against the idea that Mary should have had

other children. He never thought it necessary to the

sanctity of Mary that Jesus should have been her only


Christianity gives honor to marriage; and this idea that Mary, the virgin, should have had no other children than Christ, is based not only upon a misinterpretation of Scripture, but upon a radical error with regard to marriage itself, as if marriage were something dishonorable, and the married state was not lofty or so pure as the unmarried state. Protestantisn has evermore protested against such a doctrine as thu It is altogether probable -that Mary had other children and that these other children were the four wbox names are given to us. It is significant that James.; always mentioned as the first among them.

Being thus related to Jesus by ties of blood, Jarrewould seem to have had claim to the position of president or pastor of the church in Jerusalem. It was nc: fit that an apostle should have that permanent relation to a local church. That, I think, in itself is an a priori argument against the idea that the James of whom we are speaking was an apostle, either James the son or Zebedee or James the son of Alphaeus, for an apost'e was one who had wider relations, one who had authority over the universal church. It was not fit that sn apostle should narrow down his regards to a particular local body. It was, rather, proper that one who wis outside that circle of the apostles should be the president of the church at Jerusalem.

If this be true that James was the brother—the halfbrother, shall I say?—of our Lord, is it not wonderful that Jesus, when he hung upon the cross and inmaking provision for the comfort of his mother after his death, should not have commended her to the care of James, rather than to the care of John, who did not belong to his own immediate family? How plain it '5 that relationship in the faith is a closer relationship than mere relationship of blood! When Jesus hung upon the cross, neither James, Joses, Simon, nor ]uda>

belonged to the number of the disciples. They were still unbelievers! How unfit it would have been that Jesus should have commended his mother to the care of one whose heart was yet unrenewed, one who was not a disciple! It would have been a poor house to send her to; and, besides, it is very questionable whether there zvas any such home. Jesus was the elder brother. Jesus was the head of that household. Jesus' death broke up the household, and he had not had where to lay his head. They had no home. John had such a home. John appears to have been a man of means. John appears to have had a house in Jerusalem. Jesus commended his mother to John because John was a believer; because John stood to Jesus himself in a closer relationship than any one of these unbelieving brethren did; because John had a home and was ready to receive her. Surely here are reasons enough why Jesus should prefer John to James.

James, however, was speedily renewed in the whole spirit and temper of his mind; and when, at last, Jesus had ascended, we see him, with his brethren, meeting together with the apostles and with Mary, the mother of our Lord, and with certain women, in that upper chamber, to pray for the descent of the Holy Spirit.

It was very natural that this James who was closely related to Christ, after he was converted to the faith of Jesus, should have been pitched upon as the very first for the presidency of the local church. In spite of his previous unbelief, he held a high place in the minds of the disciples for the rectitude of his life, the austere and thoroughgoing righteousness of his conduct. He was surnamed "The Just," because of his »

severe and unbending integr1ty. Tradition says of him that he never partook either of wine or of flesh, and that his knees were hard and horny, like the knees of a camel, because he had spent so much time prostrate upon them in prayer.

So we find James becoming the head of the church of the circumcision; find him a Jew, preaching the gospel to the Jews; find him a pillar of the church; and, at the time of the council at Jerusalem, when the church at Antioch sent to ask the advice of the Jerusalem church with regard to that difficult matter of the treatment of Gentile converts, we find him presiding over the meeting of the council and, when all has been said upon one side and upon the other side, standing forth to give his verdict. And, just so soon as he has uttered his verdict that the Gentiles shall be regarded as fellow heirs, the whole church at once assents to his decision, and accepts this decision as its own. To the very end of his life, which apparently took place in the year 62, James maintained this unbroken consistency. It was the consistency of a perfect character, of a spotless integrity, of a holy life. There was great fitness in putting James in just the position that he held, and an equal fitness in his addressing just the persons who are addressed in this Epistle.

We must remember that James was a Jewish Christian. James apparently never left the Old Testament church. James apparently never forsook the worship and service of the temple. James regarded Christianity as a developed Judaism; and the position he takes in this Epistle reminds us very strongly of our Saviour's Sermon on the Mount, on the one hand, and of the preaching of John the Baptist on the other. Righteousness of life seems to be the keynote of all his writing.' It was a very fit thing that this kinsman of our Lord and this Puritan Jew, as one might call him, should have exercised this great influence and should have had this prominent and important position in the days of the Jewish church. How natural it was that he should be looked up to and respected by the Jews around him, as no other person could have been looked up to and respected. There were many pious Jews who might be influenced in favor of the gospel, but who could not be influenced by Gentile Christians, or by Paul. They would have been most seriously prejudiced against Paul; but they could be influenced in favor of the gospel by one who was out and out a Jew, who gloried in the ancestral traditions, who was careful to maintain the forms of Jewish righteousness, who paid respect to all the external services and observances of the temple. These things were dear to him. This James could constitute a transition from the old to the new, as almost no other man could do. There was a divine providence in it toward that multitude of pious Jews who could not break away from the ancestral worship, that the gospel of Christ should be represented so ldng and so faithfully by one of their own number, who showed them that Judaism was perfectly consistent with a higher faith, and that they might be Christians while yet at the same time they were Jews, so far as the outward services and observances of the temple were concerned. For many years, even for a quarter of a century, Christians did not give up the services of the temple. In the temple and from house to house they met, and they rejoiced in God. I say it was a marvelous providence to the pious Jews, who had not yet been convinced of the truth of Christianity, that Christ had a representative who preached continually by his faithful and consistent life, and by his love for the old Jewish traditions, while yet at the same time he was a convert to the new religion.

It was only when this long and faithful ministry to the Jewish Christians came to its end; it was only when the Jews, in the obstinacy of their unbelief, took hold of this same James, cast him down from a pinnacle of the temple, stoned him with stones, and beat him to death with a fuller's club, it was only then that the iniquity of the Jews seems to have reached its height; and that was only a little before the storm of wrath burst upon Jerusalem. God gave the Jews a chance to receive the gospel for a long time after the death and resurrection of Christ, and he gave them one of their own number to preach it to them. It was only when this long ministry of James, the brother of our Lord, had proved utterly unavailing and had ended in the martyr's death, that the destruction of Jerusalem came, and swept away that devoted city. But there was great fitness in such a representative of the Old Testament piety being permitted to hold on and work, while, at the same time, he was the representative of the new gospel. James constituted a bridge, and a transition, from the Old Testament to the New Testament ministry.

This Epistle of James has in it an interest peculiarly its own. It is the first Epistle of the New Testament. It is the earliest written document of the whole canon. It was probably written as early as the year 47, twenty years before the Epistle to the Hebrews and long before any of the Epistles of Paul. There is an air of antiquity, savoring of the Old Testament, about it, such as there is about no other of the New Testament documents.

What was the occasion of the writing of the Epistle? It is evident that, at the time it was written, Christianity had spread abroad, and that Jewish Christians had become so scattered as to be called "the Dispersion." Yet they have not gotten so far as Antioch, nor have they begun to penetrate the heathen world. They seem rather to be confined still to the bounds of Palestine. James had perhaps been the means of converting many of them, and as these converts would come back, from time to time, to Jerusalem to attend the feasts, and his personal connection with them would not cease, he would follow them into their distant homes, he would be solicitous in regard to their spiritual condition; and from his position of authority and influence he would naturally write to them his instructions and requests.

Tradition relates that James never left his place of labor in Jerusalem. Whatever influence he exerted upon the distant Christians he exerted by his writing. About the year 47, we may believe, he wrote this Epistle in order to correct wrong practices and tendencies among the Jewish Christians. It was not written to Jews as Jews. The twelve tribes that are scattered abroad are not the twelve tribes of the old Israel; they are the spiritual men and women who, from James' point of view, constitute the real Israel. He can speak of them as the real twelve tribes; and, therefore, he addresses them with regard to the evils that have begun to prevail among them. It is a time of trial and difficulty among them. Many of them are poor. Only here and there is there one who is rich. The poor are full of discontent, and the rich are overbearing, tyrannical, and proud. They presume upon their riches. they oppress their poor brethren. So easy it is to see that the early church was not immaculate. James looked abroad and recognized the fact that even the gospel of Christ had not made the Christians all they ought to be, and he tried to remedy these difficulties by writing to them an Epistle. All this takes place apparently before the Apostolic Council, for you notice there is not the slightest reference to the subsequent controversies with regard to justification by faith. Although James uses the word justification, there is no probability that he alluded to Paul; in fact, the Epistle of James was written before even Paul's first Epistle to the Thessalonians had seen the light.

The Epistle is not a doctrinal Epistle at all. It is a practical Epistle, written to correct practical evils. How does the apostle correct them? Why, he represents Christianity as the royal law, as the perfected law. The gospel, and God's new requisitions in Christ, are merely an expansion, an enlargement, an interpretation of the law of the Old Testament. It is the perfected law of liberty, and it is a law in which, if a man looks as into a mirror, he sees his own reflection; he sees the reflection of his own sin and his own needs; and he sees the wav of salvation that has been provided by God through his Son. And so the whole substance of this Epistle might be put into those few words, " Be not hearers of the law, but be doers also." In other words, the apostle was grieved at the fact there were so many that regarded their whole work as done when they had but merely an external faith in Christ, and he claims that mere faith in Christ that is intellectual and theoretical is of no value; that that is not the real faith of the gospel; that the real faith of the gospel is a faith that will make men faithful. The faith that saves is a faith that works by love and purifies the heart; and every other faith is a dead faith. Man is saved by a living faith, he is saved by a faith that will do something for him; he is saved by a faith that will bring him into connection with a living Christ, and so will lead to the purification of his life and heart. James is indignant with those who declare that they have the faith of Christ, and who yet are immoral or inconsistent in their practical lives. This is the whole substance of the Epistle. There is not much organized material, there is not much structure, as there is in the Epistle to the Hebrews. You cannot analyze it so easily as some other Epistles. It is a series of admonitions and precepts, directed to the practical life of the Christian church.

Luther had great difficulty with this Epistle of James. It was a stumbling-block to the great reformer to the very end of his days. He said some very hard things about it. He said, "The Epistle of James is a veritable epistle of straw." He counted it to be no apostolic writing. He said that it was destitute of the substance of the gospel. And why? Why, because he thought it inconsistent with Paul's doctrine of salva

tion by faith. Ah, Luther was a great hero, and a
great reformer, but he was a great deal narrower
than Jesus Christ and his gospel. Luther did not un-
derstand James, and he would have done far better if
he had suspended his judgment and waited for more
light. The truth is, that profession of faith in Christ
which makes a mere external idea of Christ the sub-
stance of the gospel is no better than heathenism. That
profession of faith in Christ which regards Christianity
itself as being nothing but an intellectual or historical
belief, is no better than heathenism. Says James, a
man is not justified by faith only; he is justified also
by works. That seemed to Luther a very contradiction
of the apostle Paul. The apostle Paul says we are
justified by faith. James meant just the same thing as
the apostle Paul, only James meant that a man is justi-
fied only by the faith that brings forth good works,
and that any other faith is not faith at all. James'
criticism, therefore, is not a criticism of the doctrine
of justification, but of the nature of faith. James is
criticizing the manner of faith that so many had who
had professed faith, while they were destitute of the
spirit of love and of self-sacrifice. Why, I tell you
that such faith is dead; and, if a man tells me that he
has faith and does not have any works at all, I say
that he has not the true faith of the gospel—that is,
not the faith that saves. The faith that saves is the
faith that will do something for a man in making him
over again, and making him obedient to the commands
of Christ.

Paul and James seem at first sight to teach opposite doctrines, when Paul says that man is justified by

faith, and James says that man is justified by works. But there is no contrariety at all between them. Each of them is fighting a different man; they are striking out against different errors; they are not striking at each other. Dr. William M. Taylor has given us a useful illustration. A couple of men are surprised in a dark wood by a band of robbers; one says to the other: "Let us stand back to back; you strike out against the men on your side, and I will strike out against the men on my side." They are not striking against each other, but one is striking one foe and the other is striking another foe. So Paul is striking at the men that deny justification. James is striking at the men that deny faith. It is a different enemy that each one has in mind, and the two doctrines together are hemispheres that make up the whole globe of truth. It is a good deal, as the old illustration had it, like a man in a boat. If he rows with one oar alone he will go round and round, and make no progress at all; if he puts that oar down, takes up the other oar, and rows with that, then he will go round and round, only in a different direction. The only true way is to take both oars, and both oars at once. The gospel is the gospel of faith on the one hand, and of works on the other. We must use both oars if we ever are going to get into the kingdom.

The true gospel of Christ, therefore, is a gospel of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, of salvation by faith alone; for it is only by trusting what the Lord has done that you can ever be saved; but that faith will necessarily bring you into such relation to Christ that you will be like Christ and will obey Christ.

Your faith will show itself in a holy life; and if there is no holy life, there is no true faith. Therefore Luther was narrow. He did not know the whole gospel, although he knew a part of it; and the lesson that is left to us is most important. We should lack one of the most important teachings of the New Testament if the Epistle of James were not ours. We should lack the great doctrine that those who have laid hold of Christ and have put faith in him must be sure also to maintain good works. We are saved by faith alone; but faith is never alone; it always brings good works in its train; it works by love, and purifies the heart.