Although there were two men among the apostles who bore the name James, it is generally accepted that the inspired penman of the new testament book of James was one of our Lord’s four half -brothers (cf. Mark 6:3). The apostles who shared this name are James the son of Zebedee (and brother to John, Matthew 4:21), who was killed by the order of king Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:1 – Herod died in 44 A.D.), and James the son of Alphaeus (Mark 4:18), who is probably also the man called “little” James (Mark 15:40). The book of James seems to date from a time short after the dispersal of the disciples from Jerusalem (Acts 8:4), and although it contains much information and instruction that is valuable to all Christians, it is addressed specifically to Jewish Christians (1:1). It is commonly believed that James is one of the earliest new testament books written, and most scholars date it between 44-47 A.D.
James “dives right in” to the task of challenging and strengthening the faith of Jewish Christians who were now being persecuted by their own countrymen and families because of their faith in Christ. He begins by showing that pure religion (1:27) – probably THE “issue” between these saints and their unbelieving Jewish brethren – is rooted in patiently enduring temptations and trials by asking for and depending on the wisdom God offers (1:2- 8). The focus of this opening chapter is on practicing the Christian faith, not merely “going through the motions” (1:22). There is a sharp contrast in verses 23-36 between having God’s word and doing it: For the Jews of that era, the fact that God had given them the Law (of Moses) was “everything” and the only thing that mattered for their relationship with Him. Here, James is echoing by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration what Jesus Himself had said about the Jewish rulers in passages like Matthew 23:3 – “…do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.” James’ emphasis on practicing – DOING – “the word,” together with his description of it as the “perfect” law (vs. 25) sets the faith these Christians need to maintain as a stark contrast to the formalism and ritual their Jewish families were observing.
Chapter two expands on this theme of comparing Judaism with Christianity by highlighting a hypocritical attitude some of these Christians had apparently brought with them into the church (2:1-6). Hearkening back to the words of Leviticus 19:18 in verse 8, James shows in verses 9-13 that the Jews’ tendency to “pick and choose” which of God’s commands they thought “mattered” and which didn’t (cf. Matthew 23:23) brought them condemnation rather than “partial credit” for righteousness! Returning to the point he had introduced in 1:22, James uses the rest of chapter two to stress that faith in God and works of obedience to His word complement (rather than “cancel”) one another. Indeed, “faith” that refuses to express itself in (obedient) action has no value for salvation because it is “dead” (vv. 17:& 26; cf. Hebrews 3:18- 19), and James rests his “case” on the example of Abraham, whom every Jew would consider as God’s practical example of a perfect man (vv. 21- 24). For us, the simple and practical lesson is that faith we do not practice is “faith” that does us no good!