We’re beginning a new series of sermons on the book of James. It’s quite a short book: only five chapters. So, you should be able to sit down and read through all of it in a very short time. And perhaps you might think of doing that this afternoon or this evening before you go to bed, just to get an idea of what this book is all about. And if you do that, you’ll see that this book is very practical. On Wednesdays evenings, we’ve been going through the book of Romans. And so far, it’s all doctrine. Paul has been teaching us about God and justification and faith and the law. It’s all doctrine. And often it’s hard to understand. But the book of James is more practical: it’s about how we should live our lives as believers. And that’s very often what we’re looking for: guidance on how to live our lives every day so that we’re serving the Lord and bringing glory to him.
So, it’s a very practical book. Since this is an introduction to the book, there are a few questions for us to think about this morning. Firstly, who was James? Secondly, to whom was he writing? Thirdly, what did he write to them about?
Who was James?
Firstly, who was James? Well, there are four people named James in the New Testament. Three of them are mentioned in one verse in Acts 1. After the Lord’s ascension to heaven, the disciples returned to Jerusalem and they went up to the room where they had been staying in order to pray. And in verse 13 we read the following:
And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James.
So, there’s James who was the brother of John. And, of course, James and John were two of the Twelve Disciples. So, that’s the first James. Then there’s James the son of Alphaeus. And there’s also Judas the son of James.
We don’t know anything at all about the James who was the father of Judas. In fact, the only reason he’s mentioned is in order to distinguish this particular Judas from the more famous Judas — Judas the Iscariot. If your name was Judas, you’d want to make sure no one mistook you for Judas Iscariot. But we don’t know anything about his father, James. And we don’t know much about James the son of Alphaeus either. And since we don’t know much about these two men named James, then it’s unlikely that either of them wrote this book. What I mean is that if either one of them had written this book which ended up in our Bibles, then it’s likely that we would know much more about them.
What about James the brother of John? Well, he was one of the Twelve Disciples. In fact, he was one of the inner circle of Peter and James and John who were with the Lord at the time of his transfiguration. So, he was a significant figure in the early church. He could have written this book and people would have known immediately who he was. The only thing is that this James was put to death by Herod Agrippa I. We read about his death in Acts 12:2 and it’s likely that this letter was written at a later date than that. In other words, by the time this letter was written, James the brother of John was already dead.
That leaves the fourth James who is mentioned in the Bible. And it’s James who was the Lord’s half-brother. He’s mentioned in the gospels in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3 where we read that the people in Nazareth took offence at the Lord. You know, after the Lord had preached in the local synagogue, the people said to themselves:
Who does he think he is? We know who he is because we saw him growing up around here. And we know his mother. And we know his brothers and his sisters. Who does he think he is?
And then they went on to list the names of the Lord’s half-brothers: James, Joseph, Simon and Judas. You see, after Mary conceived and gave birth to the Lord, Mary and Joseph went on to have more children. Interestingly, in John 7, John tells us that the Lord’s brothers didn’t believe in him. In fact, they were a bit sceptical towards him. And do you remember that other occasion, when Mary and his brothers came to take charge of the Lord, because it seemed to them that he was insane. For a long time, they didn’t believe in him. However, we read in 1 Corinthians 15 that the Lord, after his resurrection, appeared to James. And that seems to have made all the difference, because in the book of Acts we see how James had become a leader in the early church. In fact, it seems that he was the Moderator of the General Assembly which met for the first time in Acts 15. And the Apostle Paul referred to him in Galatians 1. This James — the Lord’s half-brother — was a significant and prominent member of the early church. And so it’s likely that’s he’s the James who wrote this letter. He’s the only one who could begin his book by mentioning his name, and everyone who first read it would say:
Oh yes. We know James. He’s the Lord’s half-brother.
However, some people find it odd that he doesn’t say in his letter that he’s the Lord’s brother. If you were related to someone famous, wouldn’t you want other people to know? Wouldn’t you boast about it? At a party, when you’re introducing yourself, wouldn’t you let people know who you’re related to? So, if James the Lord’s half-brother really wrote this book, why didn’t he mention his relationship to the Lord?
There are two answers to that. If he was so widely known in the church as we suppose, then everyone would know about him and who he was related to. There would be no need for him to mention it.
But then, secondly, no doubt James believed that the thing that mattered most was not his physical relationship to the Lord Jesus. The thing that mattered most was his spiritual relationship to the Lord Jesus. The important thing was not that the Lord was his half-brother and that they had the same mother, but that the Lord was his Saviour who had called him to serve him in the church. That’s what mattered most of all.
And, of course, before we move on it’s worthwhile noticing the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and how he doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve or hold our sins against us. You see, there was a time when James did not believe in the Lord Jesus and when he didn’t believe that the Lord really was the Son of God our Saviour. Though he had seen the Lord grow up, and must have noticed that he never did anything wrong, nevertheless he didn’t believe. And then there was that time in John 7 when the Lord’s brothers were almost laughing at him. And yet, the Lord was prepared to pardon James and he appointed him to this prominent position in the early church. Well, there’s a lesson for us. Whatever we have done, and no matter how we have sinned in the past, the Lord is prepared to pardon us. And he’s still able to use us to build his kingdom here on the earth. We saw this last week in the life of Peter who also let the Lord down. Whoever humbles themselves, and repents, and turns to the Lord for forgiveness, will find that he is abounding in steadfast love and mercy and he will not treat us as our sins deserve.
Look now at how this James describes himself in verse 1 of chapter 1. He refers to himself in this way:
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ….
The word ‘servant’ — or ‘slave’ as it can also be translated — implies two things. It implies both possession and service. A servant or a slave in those days belonged to someone. And so, here’s James describing himself as someone who belongs to God and to the Lord Jesus Christ. And, of course, a servant had to serve his master. And so, here’s James describing himself as someone whose duty is to serve God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
And that’s really how each one of us ought to regard ourselves. That’s how we should view ourselves and our lives. We’re not our own, but we belong to God who made us and who sustains us. And we belong to Jesus Christ who died for us and by his blood has freed us from sin so that we might live a new life of obedient service. So, we belong to God and we ought to serve him.
So, when we get up in the morning, and we’re getting ready to go out, that’s what you should be saying to yourself:
I’m a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. I belong to them and I’m going to serve them today.
Instead of being self-seeking, and only thinking about ourselves and what I want, instead of thinking about how I feel about things and what’s important to me, instead of thinking about what’s going to suit me, instead of thinking like that, we should be thinking about our Master and what we can do for him today and about how he wants me to live everyday.
And, look now at how James refers to his Master. He mentions God first of all: the God who made us and who sustains us every day. And then he mentions the Lord Jesus Christ. He’s the Lord, because he’s God. And we need to remember that his name ‘Jesus’ means ‘Saviour’. And every time we hear the name ‘Jesus’ we should rejoice because Jesus came to save us from the condemnation we deserve for our sins and to give us eternal life. And every time we hear the name ‘Jesus’ we should remember and believe that salvation cannot be found in anyone else apart from the Lord Jesus. And so we should always look to him for salvation and we should always point other people to him for salvation, because there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
And then, of course, he’s the Christ. And the word ‘Christ’, I’m sure you know, is a title, rather than a name. Jesus is ‘the Christ’ and it means Jesus is ‘the Anointed One’. And this title refers to the fact that the Lord Jesus was anointed by God the Father to be our Great Prophet, Priest and King. As our Great Prophet, he teaches us by his word and Spirit the will of God for our salvation. In other words, he teaches us everything we need to know for our salvation. As our Great Priest, he offered himself as the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice to pay for our sins; and he now lives to intercede for us. In other words, he has done everything that needs to be done for our salvation. And as our Great King, he makes us his willing subjects and he rules over us and defends us, restraining and conquering all his and our enemies. In other words, he rules over everything in order to complete our salvation and to bring us finally and forever to be with God.
James regarded himself as the servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Eternal God and worthy of our worship; and who is our Saviour whom we ought to trust; and who is our Prophet, Priest and King who does all things necessary to deliver us from our sin and misery and to give us everlasting life. And just as James regarded himself as their servant, so should we; every day that we live, we ought to be seeking to serve them by obeying them and doing their will. And so, if you imagine yourself, writing a letter or an email to a friend. Imagine yourself signing the letter as James did, and writing:
Colin, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ my Saviour.
If you did write that, would the person who received your letter know that it is true? Would they know by the way you live your life that you really are a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ? Would they say of you that yes, I can tell that he really does want to serve the Lord.
To whom was he writing?
That’s who James was. The second question to consider is: To whom was he writing? And James tells us in verse 1. He wrote:
To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.
Or more literally, he wrote:
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.
If you’re familiar with your Old Testament history, you’ll know that in the Old Testament Jacob had twelve sons. And from those twelve sons there came the twelve tribes of Israel. And the twelve tribes of Israel were the Lord’s chosen people. They were the church in Old Testament times.
But then, do you remember what happened to them? The Lord’s people, again and again and again, turned away from him and they began to worship false gods. And instead of walking in his ways, they kept disobeying his laws and commandments. And what did the Lord do? He sent their enemies — the Assyrians and the Babylonians — who invaded the land and who captured his people so that his people were taken away, out of the Promised Land, and they ended up scattered throughout the nations. In other words, they were dispersed among the nations.
So, in Old Testament times, the Twelve Tribes in the Dispersion referred to the Old Testament church and to all the people of Israel.
Was James writing to them? Well, no. When James refers to the Twelve Tribes he’s not referring to the Old Testament church. He’s referring to the New Testament church or to the Christian church. James was writing to people who believe in the Lord Jesus and who have become members of God’s people through faith in his Son.
And the Christian church had also been scattered. It had been scattered because, in the early days of the New Testament church, the church in Jerusalem was being persecuted. Do you remember? Stephen was the first Christian martyr. And after his death, the believers had to flee from Jerusalem and they were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. So, the church was scattered because of persecution.
But, of course, the church is scattered in another sense. In Old Testament times, all of God’s people, the whole of the church, was located in one place and in one place only. The church was located in the Promised Land of Canaan. It was in the land of Israel. But, after the Lord’s resurrection, he commanded the Apostles to go and make disciples of all nations. And so, the people of God, the church of Jesus Christ, is not found in one nation only, but in every nation. Believers are found here, there, and everywhere. So, the church is scattered in the sense that we’re scattered throughout the world.
So, James was writing to the Twelve Tribes scattered among the nations. He means he was writing to Christians, members of the church. And his originals readers were scattered because of persecution. But his readers today are scattered because the church is found throughout the world in every nation.
What did he write to them about?
We’ve thought about who James was. And we’ve thought about to whom he was writing. Finally then, what did he write to them about? Well, I have to be brief. But I’ve already said that this is a practical letter. James is very much concerned with how we live our lives and what we do. So, for instance, towards the end of chapter 1, he reminds us that we mustn’t be hearers of the word only, but we must be doers of the word. Some people like to listen to lots of sermons. Or they like to spend all their time in Bible studies. And they like talking and thinking about the Bible. Well, James reminds us that all our Bible study must lead to action. We must obey the word of the Lord and we must do his will. And so, he reminds us as well at the end of chapter 1 that religion that God our Father accepts is to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. In other words, we must help the helpless in our churches and we must keep ourselves pure. It’s about what we do.
Then in chapter 2, he talks about how we should treat newcomers when they join us for worship. We’re not to prefer the rich person over the poor person so that we give a warm welcome to those who are wealthy while we shun the poor man and the poor woman who might come into church in shabby clothes. No, we’re to love and welcome all who come.
Then in chapter 3, he warns us that we need to tame our tongue. We need to place a guard over our mouths because we can do so much damage by the things we say. And then, we also need wisdom from God to know how best to live our life.
Then instead of fighting with one another, because we can’t get what we want, we need to pray to the Lord for the things we need and we’re to submit to his will for us. And instead of boasting about what we’ll do tomorrow, we’re to remember that our times are in God’s hands.
And in the final chapter, James has a warning for the rich because of how they have mistreated their employees. And he then encourages those who are suffering and struggling to remember and to believe that the Lord is coming again. So, we need to wait patiently for his coming. In the meantime, we’re to stand firm and we’re to pray which you might recall was what the Apostle Paul instructed us to do at the end of his letter to the Ephesians.
So, this is a practical book. It’s about how we’re to treat one another, and how we should speak to one another, and how we should welcome people into our church. And so, it’s an important book, because whoever loves the Lord will want to live a life that brings glory and honour to him.
But James is not only about what we need to do, it’s also about what we believe. It’s not about doing only, but it’s also about believing. And so, in chapter 1 he talks about how our faith can be tested and how we must not doubt. And he talks about the double-minded man who hasn’t made up his mind about Christianity or committed himself to Christ. And so, if that’s what you are, if you come to church each week, but still haven’t believed in the Lord and committed yourself to loving and serving him, James has a message for you. You need to make up your mind and believe. And in chapter 2 James talks about how we demonstrate our faith and make it visible by the things we do. And in chapter 4 he talks about trusting in the Lord’s will regarding what’s going to happen to us tomorrow. And in chapter 5 we’re to believe that the Lord is coming soon. So, this is a practical book, but James reminds us again and again that we’re to believe in the Lord Jesus and trust in him. So, if you’re a believer, if you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, then this is a book for you, to show you how to live your life so that we will know how to serve God and the Lord Jesus Christ while we wait for him to come again.