Lessons from the Life of James

Lesson One
            When you hear the name James, who comes to mind? For most people, it is the apostle James who is the brother of John. However, the James which will be the focus of this discussion is the brother of Jesus Christ. For us to come to a better understanding of who James is, we will have to take a closer look at the lifestyle and the nature of the region in which he lived. It will also be important to understand the relationship between James’s culture and his family setting.
The journey begins not in the New Testament, but what is known as the Intertestamental Period. This period lays the backdrop for all the things that develop throughout the New Testament. The Intertestamental period times were a time of great turmoil and change, not only in the political realm but in the religious world also. The Jewish community was beginning to divide against itself with Pharisees and Sadducees and many other groups rising. J. Julia Scott Junior and his work Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament has a chapter dedicated to the common life in first century Israel. In this chapter on page 237, there is a table that depicts the major divisions in first century Israel which lie between the economic and religious lines. The economic divisions are just drastic ranging from the rich of the city, while the rich in the country are land owners and those of large estates. The next class of the economic society would be the middle class artisans and merchants found in the city or owners of moderates to stay in the country. It gets even worse though, you have will consider the lower-class of the city and the country poor which were usually peasant farmers or landless peasants; but worst of all were those looked at as nonpersons, be it women and children or slaves.[1]
Upon looking at this chart it is safe to assume that the family structure James grew up in was possibly middle-class because his father was a carpenter. While he possibly grew up in the middle-class home, it does not mean that life for him was easy. Since it is generally assumed that the tithe is only 10 percent, it needs to be understood that the total levy for religious duties could come close to 50 percent of a working person’s income.[2]The type of home that James and his family more than likely lived in was a single-family dwelling, which would’ve had one room or possibly more that would’ve been separated by curtains or mats. These rooms tended to be quite small and held much heat, usually only having one small window which did not ventilate well.[3]Most homes of this time had flat roofs; families often congregated there in the cooler parts of the day to eat sleep and enjoy each other’s company.[4]
Now that an understanding of James’ culture has been established, let’s take a closer look at the man himself. When reading the name James, no one would ever assume that what is actually being read wasn’t the actual name we should be seeing. According to several different authors, the actual translation of the name James is Jacob, which is what his name actually means in the Hebrew.[5]Now that we have established the root of James name, let’s examine his family a little closer. In order to conduct this examination we will have to use more than just the Gospels. The best example that we do have from the Gospels about James and his family comes from Mark, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.”[6]
It can be seen that James had other brothers and sisters; one of his other brothers is considered to be the author of the book of Jude. There are some in church history who would attempt to say that James was not the brother of Jesus but actually a cousin. The greatest proponent of this view is Jerome. Bob Uttley tells us that, “Jerome said that he was Jesus’ cousin (by Alphaeus and Mary of Clopas). He got this from comparing Matt. 27:56 with John 19:25.” [7]  There are two other points of view that come into play; the first one is that James is a half brother, however, not by birth but through Mary’s marriage to Joseph. The second is that while the traditional view is the most widely accepted view which this author believes, is that James is the biological brother of Jesus Christ. Upon further examination of James’s family it is to be noted that he was born into a very important religious family. In the book of Luke we find out that his uncle is a priest, his aunt Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, and his mother would be the Virgin Mary. So would it be safe to assume that James was born into a very important historical family? Unlike his brother Jesus, it’s believed that James happened to be married according to First Corinthians 9:5.
According to Utley and others, “James was not a believer until after the resurrection (cf. Mark 3:21; John 7:5; I Cor. 15:7).” [8]  However, Painter and several others believe that by the time Acts 1:14 occurs that James and other family members of Jesus Christ had come to belief in Jesus as the Messiah[9]. And with the death of James in Acts 12, we know that the James in Acts 15 is not the brother of John, the conclusion can be made that he is the brother of Jesus. Now that we’ve delved into the cultural surroundings and the man himself let us further endeavor to understand his theology and the role he played in the Jerusalem church.
Lesson Two
It can be established that James has come to faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, by the time we reach the council of Acts 15. What is still left up in the air is how he reached that place of prominence, and what does he really believe? While we have no exact evidence of how James came to the role of leadership in the Jerusalem church, we do know that over time he was put in charge of the congregation. Painter argues that James was not appointed as an apostle but as an elder of the church, when he says,
However, when the Antioch church sends famine relief to Jerusalem by the hands of Barnabas and Saul, there is no mention of the apostles. The relief was sent to “the elders” (Acts 11:30), indicating the transition in leadership from the apostles to the elders. Thus when the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to Antioch, there is no mention of the apostles. It is assumed that he was sent by the elders and that by then James had replaced Peter. Acts 12:1-24 can be read as a kind of flashback to explain how James came to leadership.[10]
While to some this argument may make sense when reading the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, the point is more clearly made that this is not necessarily how things came about. The HIBD gives us good cause to believe that James was considered an apostle by many including Paul, “Paul, seeking out Peter in Jerusalem after his conversion, reported, “I didn’t see any of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:19 HCSB). In time, James assumed the leadership of the Jerusalem church, originally held by Peter. Evidently, such was achieved not through a power struggle but by James’ constancy with the church while Peter and other apostles traveled.” [11]
            It is abundantly clear that James has gained a position of power within early Christianity; what is left to be understood by the readers of the book of Acts, and the epistle of James; is what exactly his theology is. What the reader must always remember is that when James is writing or speaking his theological thoughts he is not speaking with the presuppositions of Christianity. James is coming from the background of the Jewish community; here is what we would refer to today as a Messianic Jew. A very interesting read on the theology of James is written by Dr. David Friedman with B. D. Friedman entitled James the Just present applications of the Torah. For many students, this author included, there often seems to be a conflict between the theology of Paul and that of James; that conflict revolves around faith versus works. Friedman asserts,
In reading James, we should view the term “works” at the performance of the biblical commandments. This is how the first century Jewish world to find this concept of “works”. All first century Jews, including messianic Jews, saw the performance of biblical commandments as stemming from one’s faith in God, never in opposition to it. Secondly, in Jewish thought, the purpose of fulfilling the biblical commandments was never to earn insurance into the world to come. That is a huge misconception of students of the New Testament.[12]
            Something else that can be found very interesting is the way that the book of James follows Leviticus 19, and in Dr. Friedman’s book on page 16 you can see a chart which shows a verse and chapter comparison between the two books. While Dr. Friedman draws our attention back to the Old Testament, Bob Utley in his work on James and Jude, also points out the fact that there is a tieback to the Sermon on the Mount by all the work that James put into his work, when he says, “He uses OT truths but bathes them in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount teachings.”[13]Upon reading the introduction to James as epistle, the reader can realize that James is a Messianic Jew writing to Messianic Jews. Some may ask why this is important to know, while others may care less. However, the true student of James it is important to understand that he was a Jew first, and a believer in Christ second.
            A comment that often has been made and is repeated by Utley in his commentary is that James is like no other New Testament book, and that his epistle could almost be regarded as a New Testament book of Proverbs. Upon taking the time to review the epistle he began to notice its unique layout, after the introduction in Chapter 1, James tells his readers to begin to endure trials because they will lead to maturity. From the middle of chapter 1 through the majority of chapter 2 is where things begin to get dicey for James, this is the famous section of works and faith, caught in the middle of this section is a sin of partiality, where one brother is not to show favoritism to another brother who looks deserving of higher honor according to the world.
            The beginning of chapter 3 shows true wisdom, as he speaks about the need to control our tongues; James uses very vivid word pictures when expressing the power of the tongue. James sees off chapter three talking about the importance of wisdom which comes not from the world but of God himself. As he transitions into chapter four, James continues to speak about worldliness and how gracious God truly is to those who seek him. In chapter four, James instructs his readers not to go about planning their lives without regard for the plans of God. In the final chapter of his book James has much to say not only to the rich but to those who are in the middle of health challenges and general suffering. The great overall theme of the book is the total dependence upon God for all of our needs. It is hard to imagine why this work was hard to be received by the early church and even Martin Luther.
Lesson Three
            Death is not a topic that anyone likes to discuss, however, for first century Christian it was a constant threat. For those in roles of leadership such as Peter, James and Paul it was not merely a threat but it was almost assume that their lives would be given up to death for their stance on Jesus as the Christ. Just like in our day and time in first century Israel there were many different ways to die. Church history has indicated that Peter chose to be crucified upside down because he did not feel he deserved to die the same way his Lord did. History also informs us that Paul being a Roman citizen did not have to suffer the cruel death of crucifixion, but was offered and took been beheaded. The two things that these men have in common is that they both died at the hands of Rome.
            However, James did not have that luxury. Nowhere in Scripture are we told exactly how James died, but the reading historians we can learn of his death. Surprisingly upon studying the death of James, you may find two different accounts. To the average reader these accounts could seem completely different; however to someone with knowledge of Jewish punishment he could merely be an unclearly stated ending. History will have us to believe that James was stoned. The understanding at this author has gathered is that stoning could take form in two different ways it could be by literally hurling stones at the offender or throwing them off of a cliff onto a pile of stones or by being hurled from a great height.
            Most authors included Robert Eisenman in his work on James, chooses to trust you Eusebius for his work. Eisenman says, “Since Eusebius’ account is by far the most extensive, it is preferable to turn to his first, complementing it where necessary from the others.”[14]Philip Schaff’s treatment of the death of James is one of the clearest explanations, this author was able to locate. Schaff writes:
And they began to stone him, as he did not die immediately when cast down; but turning round, he knelt down, saying:, I entreat thee, O Lord God and Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Thus they were stoning him, when one of the priests of the sons of Rechab, a son of the Rechabites, spoken of by Jeremiah the prophet (Jer. 35:2), cried out, saying: “Cease, what are you doing? The Just is praying for you.” And one of them, a fuller, beat out the brains of the Just with the club that he used to beat out clothes. Thus he suffered martyrdom, and they buried him on the spot where his tombstone is still remaining, by the temple.[15]
Since James death took place in 62 A. D., The church in Jerusalem continued to grow until the fall of the Temple 70 A. D. At that time a noticeable shift in the rise of Gentile Christians can be seen.
After James’s death he left a great legacy, one that should inspire every Christian. While James may have been the blood brother of Jesus, all who profess a faith in him are now the spiritual brothers and sisters of Jesus. The words James spoke to the Jews in the dispersion still ring true for believers 2000 years later. When we examine the life that James lived many of us can find things to relate to, whether if it is denying who Jesus is in the early parts of our lives, rededicating ourselves to the work of the church in the latter part of our lives.
Conclusion
It’s this authors hope that this study has been eye-opening for you, and may the Bible become more real to you. Every character that can be found in Scripture has some sort of background, and life experience that we can all learn from. While James is often the neglected red-headed stepchild of church leadership figures, it is this authors hope that a new respect has been earned for a man that is oft over looked for figures such as John, Peter, and Paul.
Even though his mention in the New Testament is small the impact he makes is large. If there has ever been someone in your congregation that has been sick and sought the elders to anoint them and pray over them, ask that person to thank James. We have all heard the power that a righteous man’s prayer has to offer hasn’t we? James 5 is where the answer to that question is located.
There are only five chapters in the book of James, read one chapter a day for the next month and you would have read the entire book six times, imagine the impact the Proverbs of the New Testament could have on your life (including your thought life) after processing it that many times. May these words resound inside like an alarm calling you out your slumber,
 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. [16]


[1]J. Julius Scott Jr., Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995)237.
[2] I bid., 238.
[3]Ibid., 246
[4]Ibid., 247
[5] John Painter,. Just James. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997)2.
[6]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 6:3.
[7]Robert James Utley, New Testament Survey: Matthew–Revelation(Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International, 2000), 128.
[8]Ibid., 127.
[9]Painter, Just James, 42.
[10]Painter, Just Jesus, 43.
[11]Joseph E. Glaze, “James” In , in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, Archie England et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 867.
[12] Dr. David Friedman, and B.D. Friedman. James the Just: Presents Applications of Torah. (Clarkesville: Lederer Books, 2010)4.
[13]Robert James Dr. Utley, vol. Volume 11, Jesus’ Half-Brothers Speak: James and Jude, Study Guide Commentary Series (Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 2000), 3.
[14] Robert Eisenman, James The Brother of Jesus.(New York: Penguin, 1999)411.
[15]Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910).
[16]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Jas 1:19–25.
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