What the Book of James Really Means

Some people compare the book of James to the letters of Paul, and conclude they like Paul better. After all, Paul might have been a bit demanding at times but at least he emphasized grace. James just gave us the demanding part, right?

Not so much. I think the key to understanding James isn’t by comparing him to Paul but by comparing him to Jesus. After all, Jesus and James were brothers. Not in the we’re-all-sisters-and-brothers-in-Christ sense, but in the Mary-was-their-mom sense.

When I read James and come to certain passages, then, I can’t help but wonder if at the time he wrote the letter James might have had his brother in mind. I don’t mean merely that he was thinking on Christ; I imagine the same could be said about all the writers of the New Testament when they were putting words down on the scroll. I mean that James might have been strolling down memory lane as he wrote his letter.

Here are a few examples:

  • Persecution

When James wrote:

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12.)

Was he thinking of his brother saying:

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10.)

  • Demons

When James wrote:

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. (James 2:19.)

Was he remembering his brother’s conversations with demons, like this one:

He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!” (Mark 5:7-8.)

  • Hospitality

When James wrote:

Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:2-4.)

Did he have this in mind:

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14.)

  • Serving Two Masters

When James wrote:

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:4.)

Was he thinking of Jesus telling people:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 16:13.)

A Favorable Comparison

It can be harsh to compare siblings. One almost always comes out less favorably than the other, and when your older brother is Jesus we know which of the two will come out ahead. But this particular comparison ends up showing James in a very favorable light. It’s a miracle, and not just in the metaphorical sense.

That’s because if you belong to Jesus you always come out looking better than you could ever look without him. It works that way when you have the glory of Christ in your life. So go ahead and stand next to Jesus and take a good hard look.

Here’s what you’ll see: you are loved by the Father, saved by the Son, and living with the Holy Spirit in you.

Looking good there, looking real good.


This is part two of a series. What the Book of Job Really Means appeared yesterday, and tomorrow you can read What the Book of Revelation Really Means.


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17 Responses to What the Book of James Really Means

  1. janehinrichs says:

    I love the book of James. I also love the thought of James the person. It must have been an out of this world kind of understanding to know your brother was the Son of God (not when they were kids though — Jesus was probably annoying to James because Jesus never did anything wrong). Thanks Tim.

  2. RavenThreads says:

    I love this post and I love the book of James. I’ve been devoting some of my study time recently to the book of I John and thinking how similar many of the themes are to James.

  3. Jeannie says:

    Thanks for this, Tim. I love the book of James — when I was younger I had it memorized in the King James Version. I don’t remember it all now but certain passages still stand out, like how if we ask for wisdom God will give it; how “pure religion” involves caring for orphans and widows and keeping ourselves “unspotted from the world”; and how we shouldn’t glibly state what we’ll do tomorrow because it all depends on God’s will. I think the book of James is a great book for all aspects of life and faith.

  4. Laura Droege says:

    This is a wonderful post, Tim. (I seem to remember saying that yesterday!) I’ve always heard James compared with Paul, and at least in the Presbyterian circles of recent years, most would prefer to ignore James. (I’m getting really tired of that.) It becomes this “faith alone” versus “faith without works is dead” debate when it was never meant to be a debate, but truth to be lived out by Christ’s power.

    I like the idea of James running down memory lane, writing things that link to his memories of Jesus’ words/deeds, things that his readers might or might not have known. If they were familiar with the contents of Mark, Matthew or Luke at the time of the writing of James, they might’ve seen the connections and said, “Ah-ha! Yeah, that’s just like what Jesus said when . . . !”

    • Tim says:

      I bet his readers would have made those connections, too. Even if they hadn’t read one of the written gospel accounts yet, they would have heard accounts of the life and times of Jesus.

  5. Pingback: What the Book of Job Really Means | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  6. Christine says:

    Your observations are very insightful and interesting. Thanks for sharing this.

  7. Pingback: What the Book of Revelation Really means | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  8. Michael says:

    Tim, on a more practical level, the works of Paul are *used* for theological argumentation while the book of James has the expectation of living out in everyday life. Personally, I’d rather deal with a Christian who lives the life expected of him or her than some pious gas-bag who is satisfied arguing theology and using Paul to do it. Just say’n.

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