Stephen J. Oharek
The great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, infamously referred to the book of James as “an epistle of straw” in his preface to the German New Testament. What is less well known or talked about, is that Luther also praised the book of James in the same preface.
Luther said about James, “I praise it and hold it a good book, because it sets up no doctrine of men and lays great stress upon God’s law.” Luther did have a way of using his tongue to both bless the book of James and also to curse it. And with respect to the latter, the most devastating criticism he leveled against James was that he believed it did not teach us about Christ.
Luther is correct when he says, “That is the true test, by which to judge all books, when we see whether they deal with Christ or not, since all the Scriptures show us Christ.” Absolutely! Sadly, though, Luther went on to say that James does not pass that test.
If you were to listen to most people talk about James, and most preachers preach through James, you might think that they were all students of Martin Luther! It is all too common for people to approach James as a book without Christ in it. They merely glean the great imperatives of James while missing the great indicative named Jesus. In a small effort to help correct that tendency, let’s consider the following ways in which we see Jesus in the book of James.
If you could read only one thing in order to better understand James, it should be Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5–7. There are so many ways in which the book of James clearly echoes that most famous sermon of Jesus. Both tackle the themes of worldliness over against heavenly mindedness. Both deal with issues like oaths and vows, suffering well, judging others, persecution, effective prayer, and proving our faith by the fruit of good works.
And, like Jesus’ sermon, James must be read with Jesus himself in mind. In the Sermon on the Mount, who is the peacemaker, the one who is persecuted, and the pure in heart? Yes, those beatitudes belong to us believers, but only as they first belong to our Savior who spoke such blessings. Similarly in James, who is it that has perfectly endured the test (1:12), but our Savior? Who is the lowly one who is exalted (1:9)? Who is himself the perfect gift that has come down from the Father of lights (1:17)? And who has come to this world, from the Father, to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unstained from the world in perfect righteousness (1:27)? It is the same Christ who alone can ultimately save our souls from death and cover a multitude of sins (5:20).
The book of James gives numerous commands to believers to live out by God’s strength. James has around fifty imperatives (commands) in just over one hundred verses. And those imperatives are meant to be obeyed by us. But, like all the imperatives in God’s Word, they describe an obedience that was first and foremost lived out by Jesus, who came to fulfill the entirety of God’s demands. Jesus is the one who came, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill or keep it (Matt. 5:17). It is Jesus who has really fulfilled the royal law according to the Scripture (Jas. 2:8). Therefore, the proper approach to the obedient Christian life is not a life of just trying harder all the time, as James is often read and preached, but a life of becoming who we are in Christ.
It is commonly and correctly believed that the James who wrote this book was James, the half-brother of Jesus. While James had a merely human father named Joseph, and Jesus had a heavenly Father of lights, they yet shared the same human mother named Mary. As best we can tell, James (and some of his other siblings) neither believed nor followed Jesus during his earthly ministry (see Matt. 12:46–50; John 7:5). This background makes James’s later position of leadership in the church nearly as amazing as that which a Pharisee named Saul would enjoy! It also makes the book of James the same kind of “not how I did it in my earlier years” kind of treatise as that of Peter in his first epistle.
But the sibling relationship between Jesus and James ought not to be too quickly passed over. It is true that Jesus is explicitly named by James only twice, in 1:1 and 2:1. But it is wrongly inferred from this, that this is the full extent of when James had Jesus in mind when he wrote the contents of his epistle. And it is wrongly assumed that these are the only times when James wanted us to have Jesus in mind as we read this book.
The opening of New Testament letters carries more importance than we often realize. The first couple of verses provide an opportunity to present the author’s credentials. So, if you were James, the half-brother of Jesus, why not mention that connection? Would this not lend some credibility to your claims? And yet, James begins differently than we might have expected. In verse 1, he labels himself “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” And in verse 1 he also calls his intended readers spiritual exiles, “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (cf. 1 Pet. 1:1, “elect exiles of the dispersion”). After giving such spiritual identity labels, James then says in verse 2, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” And in the next two verses he speaks of the goal of suffering well, that we may become “perfect.”
Now, if you were in that original audience, getting a letter from a man whom you knew to have had the special privilege of growing up with the Savior of the world, how could you not think to yourself, “James calls himself, not Jesus’ brother, but his servant! And James calls me his brother and speaks of me reaching this complete state!” James is dignifying his audience of ordinary people by grouping them with himself, thereby indicating that all who are found in Christ by faith are brothers with this brother of Jesus.
In a book where he so infrequently names his brother who is the object of our faith, James calls us his brothers time and time again! And he speaks of our calling—to go down the same path that all of us know Jesus walked. It is almost as though this is James’s biography of his brother Jesus, because his person and work are everywhere in this book! This is not unlike the book of Ruth, where the name of God is infrequently used, but the fingerprints of divine providence are all over it. James, the half-brother of Jesus, never intended for us to read of the wisdom that comes down from above (Jas. 3:17–18) without thinking of Jesus, the Wisdom that has come to us from above (Matt. 11:19; 1 Cor. 1:30).
Given what we have been saying about Jesus in James, there are a few significant ways in which it should affect how we read James.
First, it should affect how and why we appreciate the book of James. Some Christians are fond of James because they think it speaks almost exclusively of them and their obedience. But other Christians are cautious about James because, like Luther, they’re not quite sure if it says much about Jesus. Let us not find ourselves in either category. Let us be those readers who appreciate the ways in which our Savior’s obedience is described in the book, and then be challenged by faith in him to heed the many practical commands. This is a book about how we should live, because it is a book about how he lived.
Second, we ought to be comforted by Christ as we read the strong demands of James. How is the “joy” of trials (1:2) to be understood, unless we can understand our trials in the light of Jesus’ cross, which we now bear, and understand them with reference to his image, to which we are being conformed through them? How else can we not be discouraged by the discussion in chapter 2 of faith being demonstrated by our works, unless we realize that the less-than-perfect fruit of our faith is sanctified by our Savior to become presentable to God? How can we read the many references in James to the final judgment that is coming, without clinging by faith to the Christ who will present us pure and undefiled to the Father? The centrality of Christ to this book and to its demands gives us the comfort of knowing that, although we are not, Jesus is that “perfect man” who has perfectly bridled his body and tongue (3:2).
Finally, reading this book in the light of Christ should motivate to obey its many commands. If it is read apart from Christ, one would either become a strict legalist or a completely disheartened disciple. But if it is read in the light of Christ, we are able (by God’s strength) to walk in the demands it sets before us. When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, saying that we need to be perfect like our Father in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48), we are not discouraged to the point of giving up our efforts to be faithful. It is true that we will never reach sinless perfection in this life (John 1:8). But we may be encouraged that, as our works are sanctified by Christ, we may press on to bear more of this kind of fruit. For in doing so, we will be living out of the Christ who is central to our faith, and who (as it turns out) is central to the book of James.
The author is the pastor of Reformation OPC in Oviedo, Fla. New Horizons, April, 2014.