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Bible Commentaries

Dunagan's Commentary on the BibleDunagan's Commentary

- James

by Mark Dunagan

The Book Of James


1. The Author:

A number of men in the New Testament bear the name "James":

1. James the apostle, the brother John and son of Zebedee. But this James was killed by Herod Agrippa I not later than 44 A.D. ( Act_12:2 ). Most consider his death happening so early in the history of the Church as to rule out that he could have been the author.

1. James the son of Alphaeus, who was also an apostle ( Mat_10:3 ). But it appears that this James is not mentioned after Act_1:13 . In addition, the writer of this letter doesn't assert his apostleship, as Peter ( 1Pe_1:1 ; 2Pe_2:1 ) and Paul often did ( Rom_1:4 and so on). It would appear that the writer of this letter was so well known and prominent that he could simply say, 'James, a bondservant of God', and Christians in the first century would immediately recognize the identity of the writer. 'Only a very prominent person could use such a common name without further identification. To suggest some obscure "James" would not be convincing.'

1. James the physical brother of Jesus ( Mat_13:55 ; Mar_6:3 ). This James is consistently referred to by his personal name alone ( Act_12:17 ; Act_15:13 ; Act_21:18 ; Gal_2:9 ; Gal_2:12 ; Jud_1:1 ).

The Life Of James

Because he is first mentioned in the list of the Lord's brothers ( Mat_13:55 ; Mar_6:3 ) it is assumed that he was next in age after Jesus. During the public ministry of Jesus, James and the other family members had tried to visit Jesus ( Mat_12:46-50 ; Mar_3:31-35 ; Luk_8:19-21 ). It appears that they were concerned about His health ( Mar_3:21 ; Mar_3:31 ). Up until at least seven months prior to the crucifixion, James and the other brothers remained unbelievers in Jesus ( Joh_7:3-5 ). And yet prior to the day of Pentecost we find James with the apostles and other disciples ( Act_1:13 ), evidently now a believer in Jesus. Many feel that the "James" mentioned in 1Co_15:7 , to whom Jesus appeared, was this James. And that this appearance convinced James and subsequently the other brothers that their brother Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

In the history of the early church we increasingly find James playing a prominent role. Three years after his conversion, Paul had met with Peter and James ( Gal_1:18-19 ). In Gal_2:9 , Paul referred to this James as being one of the pillars of the church, along with Peter and John. Around 47 A.D., James takes a prominent and vocal role along with Peter, Paul and Barnabas in opposing the Judaizing teachers ( Act_15:13-21 ). Clearly, he is a man who had the gift of speaking by inspiration. When Paul brought the collection for the poor Christians to Jerusalem, James is mentioned along with the elders of the church in Jerusalem ( Act_21:18 ). This was the end of Paul's third missionary journey and would be spring of 58 A.D. Josephus claims that between the death of Festus and the arrival of the new Roman governor in Judea, the high priest, Ananus, seized the opportunity to call the judicial council together. He charged James and others with violating the law, and James was stoned to death. If we take this account as accurate, then James would have died around A.D. 62.

1. The Date:

1. 'Considerable attention is given in the letter to the economic inequity between the poor and the rich among the readers (5:1-6). This condition largely ceased after the Roman-Jewish War (A.D. 66-70).' (Kent p. 27). But such would have to assume that the primary audience addressed were Christians living in Judea. 2. James is said to have died around 62 A.D., so this would be the limit for when the epistle would have been written. 3. Within the letter we learn that Christians are already suffering persecution (2:7). That the name "Christian" ( Act_11:26 ) is already being used and is being ridiculed by unbelievers. This would place the epistle as being written probably at least after 40 A.D. The letter also mentions orphans and widows and brethren in poverty (1:27; 2:15-18). A great famine had hit Judea around 44 A.D. Many date the letter as being written being A.D. 44 and A.D. 62 or 65, seeing that another tradition has James living until 65 A.D.

1. To Whom Was The Letter Written:

'to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad' (1:1)

"Twelve tribes"-Obviously, James isn't writing to non-Christians or Jewish unbelievers. The expression 'twelve tribes' must be taken figuratively to apply to the Church, the new Israel ( Gal_3:28-29 ; Gal_6:16 ; Rom_2:28-29 ; Rom_4:11-12 ).

"Dispersion"-Initially, the word was used of Jews who from time to time had been scattered among the Gentiles ( Joh_7:5 ), Jews who lived outside of Palestine. But since James isn't writing to unbelieving Jews, the word 'dispersion' must mean, 'figuratively of Christians who live in dispersion in the world' Therefore it would seem that this letter is addressed to Christians who have been scattered due to persecution ( Act_8:4 ) and other factors. This is a general letter addressed to all Christians.

1. Where Written:

Woods notes, that James mentions the "early and latter rain" (5:7), which is a characteristic of Palestine. In addition, all the references to James in the latter half of the book of Acts place him in Jerusalem ( Act_15:1-41 ; Act_21:1-40 ). The years during which James was a prominent voice for Christians in Palestine were troublesome years. Roberts notes, 'The political and religious life of the country in these years is filled with corruption, strife, intrigue and hatred…In the governorship of Cuspius Fadus (A.D. 44-46) occurred the uprising of Theudas in Judea…It was during these years that the infamous Ananias was elevated to the high priesthood which he held A.D. 47-59. In A.D. 48 another governor Cumanus replaced Tiberias Alexander, and under his blundering occurred the riot in the temple in which Josephus says 20,000 Jews lost their lives….The new Procurator was Felix (A.D. 52)..Under him conditions of "legalized extortion"..became the order of the day. The Jewish nation, already impoverish by the famine ( Act_11:27 ), reached a critical economic state…The greed of Ananias and the rich Jews of whom the Sanhedrin was typical….Resentment against this situation and against Rome, who allowed it, became intensified in the 50's by the growing Zealot bands of murderers and armed Dagger Assassins. These Assassins who appeared in the early reign of Felix began their work under the instigation of the Governor himself with the murder of the ex-high priest Jonathan in the Temple….The recall of Felix soon after the rule of Nero began brought the more able Festus to the troubled province. But his efforts to promote peace availed little…Festus died in A.D. 62, )and according to Josephus, before the new governor could arrive (Albinus), Ananus and the Sanhedrin took the life of James)… The high priest who had done the deed was deposed by the new Governor, but the Governor…organized his own pillage, set prisoners free for fees, and allowed the Sadducees free rein in Jerusalem; mobs ran riot…Meanwhile the Romans were growing tired of the bickering and the attacks upon Roman supply trains. Vespasian was on his way to set the troubled province at peace. The rest is tragedy.'

1. Complaints Against The Book:

1. Martin Luther attacked the book of James, but he also had a low view of Jude, Hebrews and the book of Revelation. His dislike for the content of this epistle was based on his misunderstanding of what Paul meant by justification by faith. He failed to realize that the faith that results in justification is a faith which is obedient ( Rom_1:5 ; Rom_2:6-11 ; Rom_6:1-5 ; Rom_6:17 ; Rom_16:26 ). And that mere mental assent has never saved anyone ( Joh_12:42-43 ).

1. Others view the book of James as containing a very low view of Christianity, and that the author was a man still caught up in observing the Law Of Moses. The problem with this, is that the author opposed those who tried to blend elements of Judaism with Christianity ( Act_15:1-21 ). Paul viewed James as definitely being on the right side of the Judaizing Controversy ( Gal_2:9 ). In addition, how can anyone read this book and call it a low view of Christianity? Some complain that James doesn't contain the "meat" that is found in other New Testament letters such as Romans. In my view, this book contains a tremendous amount of meat. Just try applying the book in your daily life!

Guthrie has noted that many statements in this book are simply restatements of what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount ( Mat_5:1-48 ; Mat_6:1-34 ; Mat_7:1-29 ).

1. Joy in the midst of trials ( Jam_1:2 ; Mat_5:10-12 )

2. Asking for good gifts (1:5; Mat_7:7 ff)

3. Teaching against anger ( Jam_1:20 ; Mat_5:22 ).

4. Hearers and doers of the Word ( Jam_1:22 ; Mat_7:21 ; Mat_7:24 ).

5. Keeping the whole law ( Jam_2:10 ; Mat_5:19 ).

6. Blessings of mercifulness (2:13; Mat_5:7 ).

7. Blessings of peacemakers (3:18; Mat_5:9 ).

8. Friendship with the world is enmity against God (4:4; Mat_6:24 ).

9. Blessing to the humble (4:10; Mat_5:5 ).

10. Against judging others (4:11-12; Mat_7:1-5 ).

11. Moth and rust spoiling riches (5:2; Mat_6:19 ).

12. Against oaths (5:12; Mat_5:33-37 ).

1. There are those who claim that the Greek found in the book is excellent and would be beyond the abilities of a Galilean. Such writers seem to forget that God is the real author ( 1Co_2:9-13 ; Eph_3:3-5 ). And if inspiration means anything, it means that God should be given credit for the grammatical construction of the letter. Good grammar isn't a problem for a person who is being moved by the Holy Spirit ( 2Pe_1:20-21 ). If the Holy Spirit could enable men to speak perfectly in a foreign language which they had never learned ( Act_2:6-11 ), then what is the problem with the Holy Spirit improving your grammar in a language which you have heard since birth?

4. And then there are the writers who are always trying to find a pseudo-writer behind every New Testament book. That is, someone other than James wrote the book and attached his name to it. But if the real author was deceptive, or in other words a liar ( Rev_21:8 ), then why should we listen to anything he said?

VI. A Very Practical Book:

Various voices within the community of religious scholarship might not like this book, but I have a feeling that some of this is due to prejudice on the part of the scholars. This book doesn't allow us to remain on an academic or theoretical level with the truths of Christianity. 1. This isn't a Christianity which is practiced in the comfort of a study or with the perks of tenure and a successful book tour (1:2-4). 2. God isn't impressed by the skeptic (1:6-8). 3. There is a wisdom that cannot be obtained apart from God and submitting to His will ( Jam_1:5 ). 4. This book gets down to the nitty-gritty of temptation (1:14-16), and removes all the human explanations, excuses and rationalizations for why people do bad things. The teaching on why people give into evil clearly goes against modern political correctness and what often passes for "science". 5. Often, religious or secular scholarship doesn't like to hear that lip-profession means nothing (1:22-27). Being a Christian means getting your hands dirty, getting into uncomfortable situations, changing your attitude, controlling your tongue and so on. 6. The teaching concerning personal favoritism (2:1-9) goes against the preferences of those who see themselves as belonging to an elite class. 7. A faith that works upsets the Calvinist or the elitist, who wants their salvation locked in, so they can concentrate on more important matters (2:14-26). The book is so practical that some have called it "the gospel of common sense". Or as the writers of the ISBE stated, "The sentence construction is simple and straightforward. There is usually no good reason for misunderstanding anything James says.' One writer noted, "There are those who talk holiness and are hypocrites; those who make profession of perfect love and yet cannot live peaceably with their brethren; those who are full of pious phraseology but fail in practical philanthropy. The epistle was written for them. It may not give them much comfort, but it ought to give them much profit. All who are long on theory and short on practice ought to steep themselves in the spirit of James; and since there are such people in every community and in every age, the message of the epistle will never grow old.' (ISBE p. 1567)

1. Themes In The Book:

Pure Religion Vs Vain Religion

Pure Religion: Vain Religion

Joy and patience in the midst of trials (1:2-4) Complaining (5:9)

Unwavering faith (1:5-8) Doubting (1:6-8)

Enduring temptation (1:12-15) Yielding to it (1:14)

Seeing God as the source of all good (1:17)

Slow to anger (1:19) Anger (1:20)

Humility (1:21) Pride (4:6)

Obedient Faith (1:22-25) Lip profession (2:14-16)

Control of the tongue (1:26) Lack of control (1:26, 3:2ff)

Benevolence (1:27; 2:14-26) It's not my job (2:16)

Moral purity (1:27; 4:8) Friendship with the world


Love of neighbor (2:10) Showing partiality (2:1-9)

Respect for the whole law (2:12) Picking and choosing (2:9)

Mercy (2:13) No mercy (2:13)

Peaceable, gentle, reasonable, good fruits Hypocrisy, jealousy, selfish

conviction, sincerity (3:17) ambition, lying, arrogance


God is the judge (4:12) Trying to assume God's place


Trust in God (4:15) Trust in self (4:13-17)

Generosity (1:27) Hoarding (5:1ff)

An Active Faith

Paul and James do not contradict each other, how could they if we believe the Bible is inspired of God? Paul and James teach the same thing, the faith that results in salvation is an active and obedient faith. Rom_4:1-25 stresses the same truth which is stressed in Jam_2:14-26 . Look at the faith which Abraham possessed, and how Paul describes it in Rom_4:18-22 . If one tries to argue that Rom_4:1-25 and Jam_2:1-26 are in opposition to each other, what is going to happen when you read Mat_7:21 and following? Or Joh_14:15 ? Do Paul and Jesus contradict each other?

James also makes it clear that we must continue to exercise an obedient faith to end up saved. For James is addressing people who are already saved, (2:15 'If a brother or sister…and one of you says…'). The book makes it clear that a Christian can so sin as to forfeit their salvation (2:14 'can that faith save him?'; 5:19-20).

This book contradicts Calvinistic theory, for it presents man as having a choice, a freewill. And much of the book places the responsibility for change and morality upon the individual (1:2,4,6,9,12,21,22, and so on).

The Power Of The Tongue

Whoever wrote, "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me", needed to read this letter. Words can hurt and they can destroy (3:6,8). In fact, God feels that one of the real tests of our spirituality is whether or not we can control what we say (1:26).

The Truth About Temptation

In contrast to so many false theories about why a person sins, the letter makes it clear: 1. Temptation is not a matter of fate or some eternal decree from God (1:13). 2. 'nor is it hereditary and so antecedent to choice.' Many modern and ancient theories concerning why people do bad things are completely destroyed by the words found in Jam_1:13-15 .

1. Outline:

While many outlines for the book exist, I like the following:

Greeting (1:1)

Trials and how to meet them (1:2-4).

Wisdom and how to obtain it (1:5-8)

Wealth and how to regard it (1:9-11)

Temptation and trial distinguished it (1:12-15)

Good gifts (1:16-18)

While trials are used by God to develop character and spirituality, temptation never comes from God but rather springs from our own evil and selfish desires. God doesn't send temptations, but He does send all good gifts.

Hearing and doing (1:19-27).

The best thing that God has given us is His word. And when the word is received everything that is contrary to the will of God must be removed.

Against partiality (2:1-13)

Against a barren faith (2:14-26)

Qualities required in teachers (3:1-18) (and all Christians)

1. Control of the tongue (3:1-12)

2. True wisdom (3:13-18)

Dangers: (4:1-17)

1. Selfish motivation (4:1-3)

2. Desire to compromise with the world (4:4-5)

3. Arrogance (4:6-10)

4. Unconstructive criticism (4:11-12)

5. Rash confidence, presumption (4:13-17)

Warnings to wealthy oppressors (5:1-6)

Encouragements to the oppressed (5:7-11)

Against oaths (5:12)

The power of prayer (5:13-18)

Help for the backslider (5:19-20)

Before we close we should note that like the other writers of the New Testament, James believed that the examples and events recorded in the Old Testament: A. Really happened. B. Still stand as offering relevant lessons, warnings and words of encouragement ( Rom_15:4 ; 1Co_10:1-12 ; Jam_5:10-17 ).

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