If we were asked the question, “Which book of the New Testament was written first”, I imagine that many of us might guess that it was one of the gospels since they talk about the birth, life, and death of the Lord Jesus Christ. I was personally surprised when I learned that the first book of the New Testament was the epistle of James, in all probability. It was written possibly as early as 45 A.D., and as late as 50 A.D. That’s approximately fifteen to twenty years after the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is important to realize that the arrangement of the books in the New Testament is a topical arrangement rather than a chronological one. If the books were arranged chronologically by the dates that they were written, James would probably appear first. It’s interesting that, in the book of James, the name of the Lord Jesus Christ only appears twice. His cross is never mentioned, nor is His resurrection. The Holy Spirit is not mentioned either. James is not a doctrinal book but a practical book, encouraging us to live our Christian faith.
I. THE AUTHOR
Who was the author of the book of James? Obviously it was James, but which James? There are five men in the New Testament who are called by that name: James, the father of the apostle Judas; James, the son of Zebedee; James, the son of Cleophas; James the Less; and James, the brother of the Lord Jesus Christ and the son of Mary and Joseph. It is generally agreed that James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, was the author of the book.
The Scriptures tell us that during the time Jesus was growing up to adulthood, and even during His earthly ministry, His brothers did not believe that He was the Messiah. In fact, Jesus experienced opposition from them at times. And yet we find that James was a leader in the church in Jerusalem after the Lord’s ascension into heaven. We are left to conclude that it was after the death, burial and resurrection of Christ that James came to the realization that Jesus was the true Messiah. After Jesus Christ rose from the dead, He appeared to various groups. I Corinthians 15:7 states, “after that, He appeared to James; then to all the apostles.” It was probably after Jesus appearance to James after His resurrection that James placed his faith in Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord.
Since James was not a believer in Jesus as the Christ during His earthly ministry, James was not one of the twelve apostles. But after he became a Christian, James became one of the leaders in the church at Jerusalem. He is mentioned as one of the speakers at the council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, and his suggestion was accepted by the whole assembly.
III. THE EPISTLE OF JAMES
The epistle of James has been called the “Proverbs of the New Testament” because James goes from one topic to another. The epistle is also very practical, and very convicting. In the 108 verses of this short letter, there are 54 commands. That means that half the verses are commands. Someone has described James’ style as “a string of pearls”. In a string of pearls there is a basic relationship of one pearl to the other, and yet each pearl is unique and different.
While James was still an unbeliever, he must have paid attention to what Jesus taught because his letter is very much like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We’ll see this comparison more clearly as we study the book of James in detail over the next several months.
The book of James has been misunderstood and condemned by many because of its emphasis on good works. Martin Luther called the epistle of James an “epistle of straw” that ought to be burned. He and several other leaders of the Protestant Reformation felt that the Epistle of James should be removed from the Bible because of its emphasis on good works. But they misunderstood its meaning. The epistle of James is saying that “genuine faith produces genuine works”. Or, to put it another way, “the person who has genuinely found the Way, walks in it”.
The problems that James discusses have a common cause: spiritual immaturity. The Christians mentioned in his epistle were not growing spiritually. Spiritual maturity is one of the greatest needs in our churches today. The five chapters of James suggest five marks of a mature Christian. In chapter one, a mature Christian is patient in trials and temptations. In chapter two, a mature Christian practices the truth. In chapter three, a mature Christian has power over his tongue. And in chapter four, a mature Christian is prayerful in the midst of troubles.
Christian maturity is something we must work at constantly. So, don’t give up, because mature Christians are happy, useful Christians, Christians who help to encourage and build up others. As we study this epistle of James together, with God’s enabling we will learn together and mature together, and our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ will become even more evident to those around us.