Bible Commentaries

Contending for the FaithContending for the Faith

- James


A Commentary On



Publisher Charles Allen Bailey


Executive Editor - Joe L. Norton, Ph.D.
Associate Editor - Steven R. Bowen

Copyright © 1993
Contending for the Faith Publications
4216 Abigale Drive, Yukon, OK 73099 <> <>

All Rights Reserved

All scripture quotations,
unless otherwise indicated, are taken from
The King James Version, KJV


As we "earnestly contend for the faith" (Judges 1:3), we realize the need to manifest certain characteristics in our lives. This volume on the book of James--the second in the commentary series Contending for the Faith--provides help as we develop those characteristics and work toward our goal of Christian maturity. James covers such points as enduring trials, practicing patience, controlling the tongue, not showing respect of persons, and having faith and works.

The author of this volume is Brother Doug Edwards of Edmond, Oklahoma, who has been thorough in his research and effective in his writing. And, even though the work contains a great deal of technical information, it is practical and easy to understand. Bible students acquainted with the Greek language will appreciate the depth of the material, and those with no knowledge of Greek will find it easy to comprehend.

Brother Edwards, a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, has studied Greek at Oklahoma Christian College; and the book of James was the focus of one of these Greek courses. A serious Bible student, he has several years experience as a preacher of the gospel, both in the United States and in Zambia in Africa. Under the pressure of tight deadlines, Doug has performed his tasks efficiently and has made this project a labor of love during the past several months. His good work is appreciated and will provide scholarly material for Bible students for generations to come.

The book of James was discussed at the annual Comprehensive New Testament Study at the Irving Church of Christ, 108 West Grauwyler Road, Irving, Texas 75061. Each verse was presented publicly and discussed openly in an effort to arrive at the truth.

Brother Joe Norton, executive editor of this commentary, and his associate Brother Steve Bowen have once again done a great service in editing the material. Sister Martha Morris has also been very helpful in proofing the manuscript. Brother Gene Edmiston’s computer skills were invaluable in formatting each page in preparation for printing. With deep appreciation, I recognize the team effort of these Christians who donated hundreds of hours of their valuable time to produce a product to benefit everyone.

As publisher of these commentaries, it is my goal to assist in every way possible so that this reliable material may be available as a study aid for teachers, preachers, and Bible students. The Bible, of course, is the most important book in our homes--but other reliable sources are beneficial in our study. Carefully read God’s word (Revelation 1:3), study it (2 Timothy 2:15), and obey it (Hebrews 5:8-9); and Heaven will surely be your eternal home.

Allen Bailey


The short epistle of James is a testimony to the truthfulness of God and to the timeliness of His word. It serves as a witness to God’s truthfulness that he would never "leave" His people (Hebrews 13:5). Just as God led His people through the desert by the cloud and pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21-22), He continues to lead us through His word. Jesus promised the apostles they would be guided into "all truth" (John 16:13). In the epistle of James, as in other New Testament books, we enjoy the benefits of that promise. The epistle is timely because it is relevant in every age. The books of the New Testament were written for specific needs, not just hypothetical situations. The Jewish Christians in the early years of the church needed these words to keep their faith strong as they suffered trials. This need remains timeless. While our trials may not be of the same type as theirs, we, too, must continue to endure. James gives encouragement to those who need it.

It is ironic that the book written to help persecuted Christians (James 1:2-4) would itself be forced to endure persecution. For the first three centuries of the Christian era, it was considered among the "disputed books," meaning that for various reasons some did not consider it to be inspired. There are two major reasons for the suspicion about the book of James. First, the epistle was unknown to many of the early churches. It was not as widely circulated among the churches as were most of the other New Testament documents. As the church became composed more of Gentiles, the Jewish nature of the book was questioned. Second, James does not identify himself in the letter as an apostle. This omission created doubt in the minds of those in the western churches where a great emphasis was placed upon apostolic authority for an epistle before it could be placed in the canon. It was not until the fourth century that these doubts subsided and the book was universally accepted to be an inspired work (Hiebert, An Introduction to the New Testament 32-33).

It also is a well-known fact that Martin Luther, the famous and influential German reformer of the sixteenth century, found fault in the epistle of James. Luther correctly believed that the gospel should emphasize the resurrection of Christ. He incorrectly maintained, however, that any writer who did not emphasize that point was not an apostle. Since James does not mention the resurrection or claim apostolic authority, Luther questioned the value of the epistle. Lenski quotes Luther saying, "Hence one can well feel that the epistle of James is no right apostolic epistle, for there is hardly a thing of this in it" (514). Luther, however, placed Paul’s epistles (especially Romans) on a high plane. He believed that each of them was more of a gospel than Matthew, Mark, and Luke because the latter dealt with the history of Jesus while the former emphasized God’s grace.

Luther’s mistrust of the book also came from his ongoing battle with Roman Catholicism over salvation through works. Luther could not harmonize what James said about faith and works with what Paul said about it. So, to Luther, the only reasonable course to follow was to accept Paul’s writings and question those of James. But chapter two shows clearly that Paul and James do not contradict each other.

When Luther first printed his German New Testament in 1522, he relegated James to a secondary position. He positioned James along with Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation in the back and did not number them in the Table of Contents (Barclay 6). In so doing, he separated these "questionable books" from the ones he considered of inspiration. It was not until 1603 that these books were given a number in the Table of Contents.

It might be asked, "Why even be concerned over what these reformers thought concerning these books? Why bother with what some scholars thought 400 years ago?" The concern comes because the denominations of our day had their beginnings through these reformers, and many of their current false doctrines can be traced back to these men.

In spite of the attempts of men to reject this book and cast doubts upon its validity, it has been preserved throughout the centuries. It is proof again that God, through His providence and care, has provided His message for us. Man can rest assured that the entire will of God has been revealed and that what we have is complete (Matthew 24:35; 1 Peter 1:23). The question is often raised, "How do we know that we have the completed will of God in our present time? Could there be inspired books left out of the canon?" In reply, we ask, "Would God go to the effort of providing man his written word and then not watch over it?" Surely the God who can create the universe in six days and raise Jesus Christ from the dead can providentially give to man His completed will.

The Author

The writer of this short epistle is identified as James (James 1:1). This simple acknowledgment ordinarily would make determining the author easy, but the New Testament mentions at least four different men by this name. They are as follows:

1.    James, the son of Zebedee, the brother of John (Matthew 4:18-22; Matthew 10:2; Matthew 17:1-8; Matthew 26:36-46).

2.    James, the son of Alphaeus, one of the twelve apostles (Matthew 10:3; Acts 1:13).

3.    James, the brother of the Lord (Matthew 13:55; Galatians 1:19).

4.    James, the father of Judas, "not Iscariot" (Mark 6:16 NIV).

Only through a process of elimination can we reasonably determine the author. James, the son of Zebedee, suffered martyrdom early in the history of the church (Acts 12:1-2), so quite likely he was not the author. The author evidently was well-known and respected among the scattered Christians. Therefore, James, the father of Judas, can be eliminated because nothing more is known about him. Likewise, James, the son of Alphaeus, plays no major recorded role in the New Testament, so he, too, can be eliminated. It is probable, then, that the author was James, the brother of the Lord.

John portrays James as not believing in the Lord during His ministry (John 7:5). It is difficult to imagine how one so intimate with the Lord as His own brother would not believe in Him, yet he did not believe. It appears that some time after the death and resurrection of Christ, James became a believer. Paul lists him among the witnesses of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7). When Herod brought persecution upon the church, James was already recognized as a leader in the church at Jerusalem. Peter places special emphasis on James when he tells the Christians gathered at Mary’s house, "Go shew these things unto James, and to the brethren" (Acts 12:17). When the problem over circumcision erupted, James played a major role in helping to solve it (Acts 15). He followed Peter in speaking, and his words helped convince the church leaders that the Gentiles should not be troubled over the Jewish practice of circumcision. Paul, in writing to the Galatians, recognizes him as one of the "pillars" of the church along with Peter and John (Galatians 2:9). When Paul returns to Jerusalem at the conclusion of his third missionary journey, James and the elders greet him and suggest he take a Jewish vow along with some other men (Acts 21:18-25). From that account, we learn that James may have continued to keep the Law, to some degree, as a manner of life and not as a condition for salvation. Certainly, James was an influential man whose words commanded great respect from his hearers.

Was James, the brother of the Lord, an apostle? Many believe he was because of the words of Paul in Galatians 1:19, "But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother." There are two possible explanations for this passage. First, Paul may be saying that James was an apostle in the limited sense of the term. The term "apostle" basically means a messenger or one who is sent by another. The word is used to refer to the apostles of Christ, who were sent by Jesus. Likewise, the term also is used to refer to the apostles of a church, those who were sent on a mission by a church. Barnabas (Acts 14:14) and Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7) were apostles in this sense. If Paul is saying James is an apostle, it is in this limited sense. Second, Paul may not be saying James is an apostle but that he saw only Peter among the apostles and James, the influential leader in the church. Lenski adds that the phrase concerning James "does not mean that after all Paul did see another apostle, but means that he saw one other man, a leading person who was so important that he feels he must be mentioned along with the apostle Peter" (508). This second explanation is probably the correct one.

James’ writings reveal his character, showing him to be a spiritually mature man. He does not elevate himself above his readers but tenderly identifies with them as "my brethren." His treatment of delicate issues shows him to be a man of wisdom. He recognizes the nature of trials and the growth that comes from them (James 1:2-4) and understands the need for patience when suffering (James 5:7-11). He believes in social equality and justice, refusing to allow the church to show preferential treatment to the rich (James 2:1-4). His spirituality emerges in his lengthy discourse on worldliness, its cause, cure, and dangers (James 4:1 to James 5:12). His belief in prayer being practiced in all circumstances of life (James 5:13-18) demonstrates his strong faith in God. A man with this character would be eminently qualified to write a book of this nature.

The Date

Trying to date the book of James is somewhat difficult. Scholars place it anywhere between 40 A.D., which was shortly after the scattering of the church from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-4), and 60 A.D., which was near the death of James. James alludes to no historical events to help determine the date as Paul does in some of his writings; however, there are a few reasons for placing it among the earliest books written. The content and the indirect references to the culture seem to point to an early time in the history of the church (Kistemaker 18-19), and no real reference to the Gentiles and their relationship to Christianity is evident as in Paul’s writings or in Peter’s. The scattered Jewish Christians’ having trouble with their Jewish employers would seem to point to an early time (James 5:1-6). Perhaps a good estimate for the date would be somewhere between 45 and 49 A.D. This date would be before the Jerusalem meeting over circumcision (Acts 15), occurring in 49 A.D.

The Recipients of the Letter

This letter is addressed to "the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad" (James 1:1). The expression "scattered abroad" (diaspora) is from a word signifying "a scattering, dispersion" (Thayer 141). The word occurs three times in the New Testament: in this passage; in John 7:35, referring to the Jews being scattered abroad; and in 1 Peter 1:1 where it refers to spiritual Israel, the church. The question that arises is this: "Does the phrase here refer to physical Israel being scattered abroad or to spiritual Israel?" The context would seem to indicate that physical Israel is not under consideration. The writer identifies himself as a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, an admission that surely would not make much of an impression on the Jews (James 1:1). The readers are told not to blaspheme the holy name by which they were called (James 2:7), obviously referring to Christ.

The twelve tribes must be a reference to spiritual Israel. Both Jesus (Matthew 19:28) and Paul (Galatians 6:16) refer to the church as Israel. The letter, then, is addressed to Christians who are strangers and pilgrims in this world and are awaiting their journey to their heavenly home.

It would seem, though, that the letter was initially written for the Jewish Christians who were scattered abroad because of the persecution of the Jews (Acts 8:1-4). It is full of Jewish expressions. The word for "assembly," for example (James 2:2), is a form of the word "synagogue"; the reference to "adulterers and adulteresses" (James 4:4) is from the Old Testament figure of God’s being married to Israel; and the expression "Lord of Sabaoth" (James 5:4) is a Hebrew term. Thus, the letter is like many of Paul’s letters, which were initially written to a certain group yet have universal application to all Christians. James may have been written originally to Jewish Christians, but it has universal application among the churches.

The World as James Saw It

It is important to understand the world in which this epistle first appeared. Certain conditions contributed to its need. Rome was the dominant force in James’ day. The empire stretched east to the Euphrates River, west to the Atlantic Ocean, north to the Danube River in Europe, and south to the Sahara Desert. Many different nations paid tribute to the Roman government. The population of these conquered nations is estimated to have been about one hundred million (Hester 40).

The Roman Empire played a providential role in the coming of Christ and the spreading of the gospel (Galatians 4:4). Greek culture greatly influenced the Roman mind, resulting in the Romans’ adopting the Greek language and its becoming the universal language of their world. It was not unusual for a population to be bilingual or trilingual with Greek being one of the languages. This common language greatly assisted the preaching of the gospel and the writing of New Testament documents. An understanding audience could be reached almost anywhere. The Romans also maintained peace throughout their empire, allowing safe travel and easy access to distant places, conditions the apostles and early preachers utilized.

The Jews also played an important role in the world. For centuries they had scattered throughout the nations. In 721 B.C. the Assyrians captured the Northern Kingdom of Israel and carried many into captivity (2 Kings 17). The Babylonians next captured Judah and removed many of its citizens (2 Kings 25). Ptolemy 1 of Egypt (322-285 B.C.), Antiochus the Great of Syria (223-187 B.C.), and Pompey of Rome (63 B.C.) also carried off large numbers of Jews. Many more Jews voluntarily emigrated from Israel for financial gain. As a result, more Jews lived in the dispersion than did in Palestine in the first century. It is estimated that four million Jews lived in the Roman Empire while only 700,000 lived in Palestine. In fact, more Jews lived in Alexandria, Egypt, than in Jerusalem (Gundry 21). It is no wonder that Luke could say on the day the church was established, "And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under Heaven" (Acts 2:5).

The Jews proved to be influential within the Roman Empire. The Romans often opened new colonies and asked for citizens to move there. The Jews were welcomed because many were merchants and brought new commerce with them. Julius and Augustus Caesar protected and encouraged the Jews. The Roman government, on occasion, even granted special favors to the Jews (Acts 24:27).

When the scattering of the Jewish Christians occurred (Acts 8:4), many of them migrated to places where their own people lived, evidently working for those Jews who were rich. This situation created an environment in which Christians could be abused as detailed in James 2:6-7 and in James 5:1-6. The book of Acts records several of these confrontations with the Jews in locations such as Cyprus (Acts 13:6-12), Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:50), Iconium (Acts 14:4-5), Lystra (Acts 14:19), Thessalonica (Acts 17:5-9), and Corinth (Acts 18:12-17). An understanding of these conditions and of the world of James’ day helps the contemporary reader put his teaching in perspective.

The Purpose

The epistle of James is an excellent example of Biblical hortatory literature, belonging to a literary class called Parenesis, which refers to moral exhortation (Kugelman 8). The epistle introduces no new major doctrinal issues, such as the deity of Christ or the nature and organization of the church. The principles in this book, containing practical teaching for the real world in which Christians live, are universal and will be beneficial for God’s people in all ages.

The book seems to have a two-fold purpose: to encourage and to correct. Christians were being mistreated by their rich oppressors (James 5:1-6). James encourages them to endure all of the afflictions that come their way (James 1:2-8) and to be patient in suffering (James 5:7-12). He also reminds Christians of the importance of submitting to God (James 4:7-10). At the same time, they need correction in their own lives for sinful behavior that could damage the church. James admonishes them for showing favoritism (James 2:1-4), for practicing faith only without works (James 1:22-25; James 2:14-26), for becoming presumptuous teachers and not guarding the tongue (James 3:1-12), and for becoming involved with worldliness (James 4:1-17).

The purpose of the book, then, is to encourage them to maintain a strong faith despite the trials and difficulties they were facing. Lenski remarks, "This entire epistle deals with Christian faith, and shows how this faith should be genuine, true, active, living, fruitful" (530). In each chapter, James shows the product of a true faith. It helps the troubled Christian overcome the trials and temptations of life (chapter one). It does not allow the preferential treatment of the rich over the poor; neither does it allow the needy to go unattended; rather it is alive with good works (chapter two). True faith guards the tongue and prevents the speaking of destructive words (chapter three), and it causes one to submit to God and not to become friends with the world (chapter four). The ability to be patient in suffering and to pray under all circumstances of life also flows from a strong faith (chapter five).


The epistle of James contains many distinguishing characteristics. The writer is well acquainted with the practice of linking together clauses and sentences by the repetition of a leading word or one of its cognates. As an illustration, consider James 1:3-6: "patience" (verse 3) and "patience" (verse 4); "wanting nothing" (verse 4) and "if any of you lack" (verse 5); "let him ask" (verse 5) and "but let him ask" (verse 6); and "nothing wavering" (verse 6) and "he that wavereth" (verse 6). Other examples are found in James 1:12-15; James 1:21-25; James 3:2-8; James 4:1-3 (Hiebert, The Epistle of James 46).

James also speaks authoritatively, using some fifty-four imperatives in 108 verses (Kistemaker 5). His words are simple and pointed. In some ways he is like a lawyer questioning a witness with incisive, probing questions (James 2:4-7; James 3:11-12; James 4:1; James 4:4-5; James 4:12; James 4:14; James 5:13-14).

A most noticeable characteristic of this epistle is the many examples and comparisons taken from human life. The writer pictures both lust and sin as harlots conceiving and giving birth to children (James 1:15). He equates friendship with the world with adultery (James 4:4). Not doing as the word directs is like one forgetting how he looks after looking into a mirror (James 1:23-24). James also bases many of his examples and comparisons on nature. The one who petitions God with doubt in his heart is like a wave of the sea being blown and tossed by the wind (James 1:6). The one who is rich will pass away as a scorched flower (James 1:10-11). James compares the tongue to a small instrument with the power to control, such as a bridle on a horse and the rudder on a ship (James 3:3-4). The tongue, even though a small member, can do great damage in the same way a small spark can start a great forest fire (James 3:5). Our lives are very fleeting and may dissipate as quickly as the morning mist (James 4:14). Thus, James carefully draws comparisons from human life and nature to convey the spiritual lessons he deems important for his readers.

The book of James contains many similarities to Jesus’ words in the gospel narratives, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. Forty-six verses out of 108 (almost 50 percent) echo the Lord’s words (Kugelman 8-9). James may not necessarily quote them word for word, but he emphasizes the truth of those sayings in his own words. Please compare the following:

1:5, 5:157:7-124:105:3-4
2:135:7, 6:14-155:105:12

On the basis of those similarities, Hiebert suggests that James refers to the teachings of Jesus more than does any other book in the New Testament (An Introduction to the New Testament 57). James exerts considerable effort in reinforcing the moral teachings of Jesus.

An Outline of James

I.    Overcoming trials and temptations (1:1-18)

A.    Introduction (v. 1)

B.    Proper attitude toward trials (vv. 2-11)

1.    Perfection that comes through trials (vv. 2-4)

2.    Asking in faith for wisdom (vv. 5-8)

3.    Attitudes of the rich and poor toward wealth (vv. 9-11)

4.    Enduring trials and receiving the crown of life (v. 12)

C.    Source of temptation (vv. 13-18)

1.    Temptation’s not originating with God (vv. 13)

2.    Temptation’s attacking man through his own lust (vv. 14-16)

3.    God’s providing good gifts rather than temptations (vv. 17-18)

II.    Proper use of the Word of God (1:19-27)

A.    Listening and controlling your anger (vv. 19-21)

B.    Being doers not just hearers of the word (vv. 22-25)

C.    Contrast of worthless and pure religion (vv. 26-27)

III.    Making distinctions because of wealth (2:1-13)

A.    Rebuke for showing partiality toward rich (vv. 1-4)

B.    Result of showing favoritism (vv. 5-11)

1.    One becoming inconsistent in behavior (vv. 5-7)

2.    Keeping the royal law of love (vv. 8-9)

3.    Breaking this law in one point and becoming guilty (vv. 10-11)

C.    Judgment by the perfect law of liberty (vv. 12-13)

IV.    Faith and works (2:14-26)

A.    Faith without works (vv. 14-20)

B.    Faith made perfect by works (vv. 21-26)

1.    Abraham justified by works when he offered Isaac (vv. 21-24)

2.    Rahab justified by works when she protected spies (vv. 25-26)

V.    The tongue and its problems (3:1-12)

A.    Warning to teachers of greater judgment (v. 1)

B.    Importance of controlling the tongue (vv. 2-4)

C.    Damage coming from the uncontrolled tongue (vv. 5-6)

D.    Inability to tame the tongue (vv. 7-8)

E.    Inconsistency that comes from the tongue (vv. 9-12)

VI.    Two kinds of wisdom (3:13-18)

A.    Wise one exhibiting a good life (v. 13)

B.    Earthly wisdom causing confusion and every evil work (vv. 14-16)

C.    Wisdom from above full of mercy and good fruit (vv. 17-18)

VII.    Need for submission (4:1-12)

A.    Wars and fighting among themselves (vv. 1-3)

B.    Being a friend of the world making one an enemy of God (vv. 4-5)

C.    Practicing submission, repentance, and humility, for God to give you life (vv. 6-10)

D.    Slandering brothers bringing judgment from the law (vv. 11-12)

VIII.    VIII.Boasting about tomorrow (4:13-17)

A.    Foolishness of planning the future without God (vv. 13-16)

1.    People like a mist that appears and soon vanishes (vv. 13-14)

2.    Evil boasting about tomorrow because there is no dependence on God’s will (vv. 15-16)

B.    Sin occurring when we do not do what we know is good (v. 17)

IX.    Warning to the oppressive rich (5:1-6)

A.    Futility of wealth (vv. 1-3)

B.    Mistreatment of workers (vv. 4-6)

X.    Patience in suffering (5:7-12)

A.    Exhortation to be patient (vv. 7-9)

B.    Example of the prophets and Job in patience (vv. 10-11)

C.    Not swearing (v. 12)

XI.    Importance of prayer (5:13-18)

A.    Appropriateness of prayer under all circumstances of life (vv. 13-16a)

B.    Power of prayer illustrated through Elijah (vv. 16b-18)

C.    Restoring the erring Christian (5:19-20)