1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. – James 1:1-4 ESV
Many of the early church fathers ascribed the authorship of the book of James to the half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:53-55; Mark 6:1-3). Early in Jesus’ earthly ministry, His siblings had a difficult time reconciling Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God. In his gospel, the apostle John reveals that they enjoyed the notoriety of Jesus but remained unconvinced that He was the long-awaited Messiah of Israel.
After this, Jesus traveled around Galilee. He wanted to stay out of Judea, where the Jewish leaders were plotting his death. But soon it was time for the Jewish Festival of Shelters, and Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, where your followers can see your miracles! You can’t become famous if you hide like this! If you can do such wonderful things, show yourself to the world!” For even his brothers didn’t believe in him. – John 7:1-5 NLT
According to Mark’s gospel, the family of Jesus eventually reached the conclusion that Jesus’ actions were the result of madness. In their estimation, He had lost His mind and needed to be taken into custody for His own protection (Mark 3:20-21). As the half-brother of Jesus, James would have been involved in the family’s debates over Jesus’ lofty claims and potential madness. But somewhere along the way, James came to believe that his older sibling was who He claimed to be: The Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world.
In the book of Acts, Luke records that not long after Jesus’ resurrection, the 11 disciples returned to Jerusalem just as Jesus had commanded them to do.
Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, a distance of half a mile. When they arrived, they went to the upstairs room of the house where they were staying.
Here are the names of those who were present: Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James (son of Alphaeus), Simon (the zealot), and Judas (son of James). They all met together and were constantly united in prayer, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, several other women, and the brothers of Jesus. – Acts 1:12-14 NLT
After Jesus’ post-crucifixion appearances in His resurrected body, His brothers had been transformed from doubters to believers. The apostle Paul records that James, the half-brother of Jesus was among those who were visited by the resurrected Christ.
He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. – 1 Corinthians 15:4-7 NLT
And after the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, James would go on to be one of the leading figures in the newly established church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21). According to the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, James died during the reign of Portius Festus who died in A.D. 62. So the date of this epistle has to be sometime before that. The audience to whom James wrote was made up of Jews who had been scattered because of ethnic and religious persecution in Palestine. These displaced Jews, who were official members of the 12 tribes of Israel, had come to faith in Christ and were now living as aliens and strangers outside the confines of the Promised Land. The book is distinctively Jewish in terms of its tone and contains references to Old Testament characters such as Abraham, Rahab, Job, and Elijah. James also makes repeated references to the Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses.
The book is highly practical in nature and attempts to correct potential misunderstandings regarding the role of faith and the need for outward transformation of one’s character. The recipients of the letter were Jewish Christians who were attempting to reconcile the role of the Old Testament Law with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. They were living as exiles from the land of Palestine and facing persecution for their membership in the Jewish community as well as their newfound identity as followers of Christ. Their non-believing Jewish friends and neighbors would have disagreed strongly with their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. Their membership in the “cult” known as The Way would have turned off their fellow Jews and infuriated the Gentiles among whom they now lived. These Jewish converts to Christianity were facing the difficult task of living out their faith in Christ within a less-than-friendly environment. And James is trying to help them balance their reliance upon the Spirit’s indwelling power and their own need to live out their faith in practical and tangible ways.
“The purpose of this potent letter is to exhort the early believers to Christian maturity and holiness of life. This letter deals more with the practice of the Christian faith than with its precepts. James told his readers how to achieve spiritual maturity through a confident stand, compassionate service, careful speech, contrite submission, and concerned sharing. He dealt with every area of a Christian’s life: what he is, what he does, what he says, what he feels, and what he has.” – J. Ronald Blue, “James.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament
James opens his letter with a salutation in which he describes himself as “a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1 NLT). Rather than claiming his unique status as the half-brother of Jesus, James introduces himself as a lowly servant (Greek: doulos) of his Lord and Savior. As a bondservant, James was willing to place his will in submission to that of the Father and Son. He served at their discretion and was more than willing to play a subservient role when it came to accomplishing their will for the body of Christ and the continued spread of the gospel.
James opens up his letter with a rather strange admonition. He calls his readers to consider any trial they encounter as a believer as “an opportunity for great joy” (James 1:2 NLT). James knew they were facing all kinds of difficulties and he wanted them to recognize the God-ordained nature of those trials. As followers of Christ, their trials (peirasmois) were not indiscriminate and pointless. There was a purpose behind them. God was using those uncomfortable and unwanted difficulties to strengthen the faith of His children.
For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. – James 1:3 NLT
James invites them to reflect on their own experience with past trials. They have ample evidence from their own lives to prove the value of having their faith tested. And that is exactly what a trial does. It tests our faith in the goodness of God. It tempts us to doubt that God truly loves us and has our best interest in mind. When we are trying out best to live in obedience to the will of God and find ourselves facing unexpected difficulties, it’s easy to assume that God has fallen out of love with us and is punishing us. This can cause us to respond in anger and disappointment, and even tempt us to turn our backs on the will of God.
But James encourages his readers to remain steadfast, refusing to waver in their commitment to the cause of Christ and the transforming power of the indwelling Spirit of God. For James, the Christian life was a dynamic process, the ongoing transformative plan of God that had a specific end in mind: the believer’s sanctification and ultimate spiritual maturity. That’s why he encouraged them to embrace each trial as an opportunity to watch God work in their life.
So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. – James 1:4 NLT
The author of the book of Hebrews provided his readers with a similar reminder to find hope and comfort in God’s ability to use difficulties and divine discipline to produce holiness in the lives of His children.
God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. – Hebrews 12:10-11 NLT
To many Christians, the presence of trials and difficulties seems incongruent with the promises that Jesus made.
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” – John 10:10 ESV
“When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” – John 15:10-11 NLT
There is an expectation among believers that faith in Christ should produce a trouble-free existence, devoid of difficulties, hurts, and heartaches. And yet, Jesus also promised, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NLT).
We live in a fallen world where troubles, trials, and tribulations are par for the course. They come with the territory. But, as Jesus said, because of our relationship with Him, we are not victims but overcomers. The apostle Paul would have us remember that our relationship with Christ makes us victors not victims.
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:33-39 ESV
We can rejoice in the difficulties because we know that, in God’s capable hands, they become tools of transformation. He uses them to purify and perfect us. Like tools in the hands of a master craftsman, trials become divine utensils in the hands of a loving God that He uses to sanctify and perfect His children. No trial is indiscriminate or unnecessary. No pain is wasted. No suffering is without merit or purpose. The apostle Paul reminded the believers in Corinth of the redemptive nature of difficulties and trials.
We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead. And he did rescue us from mortal danger, and he will rescue us again. We have placed our confidence in him, and he will continue to rescue us. – 2 Corinthians 1:8-10 NLT
Ultimately, James wanted his readers to experience the same confident assurance that Paul had. Trials tend to make us God-dependent rather than self-sufficient. They expose our weaknesses and provide opportunities to rely upon the power and promises of God.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.