This article is a Bible study on the book of James. It introduces the book by looking at its author, background of the book, theme and structure of the book.

Source: The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, 2008. 3 pages.

Introduction to James

The Author🔗

The James who authored this epistle was almost certainly the half-brother of Jesus. His name occurs in the gospels as one of Jesus’ brothers (Mark 6:3). Being a popular name, there were other people named James; from the circle of the twelve apostles, there were already two men with that name (Mark 1:19; Mark 15:40). Yet, it is generally accepted that James the brother of Jesus wrote this short epistle. This James was prominent in the early church, known as one of the pillars (Gal. 2:9). We also meet this James in the book of Acts, where he clearly has a place of prominence and authority. Scholars who have studied the speech of James in Acts 15:13-21 see a remark­able similarity between its language and style and the epistle from his hand. Early Christians would have understood the simple reference to “James” in the first verse to mean this James, the apostle.

Although he was privileged to have grown up in the same home as Jesus, we are told that, during Jesus’ public ministry, James did not believe in Him (John 7:5). However, after He rose again, Jesus made a special appearance to his brother James (1 Cor. 15:7). This appearance is usually understood to have been the turning point in James’s life, leading to his conver­sion. It is sobering to think that while Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man (Luke 2:52), James saw no beauty in Him. But then the day came when he would echo Paul: “Though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now hence­forth know we him no more” (2 Cor. 5:16). After that glorious appearance of Christ to him, James united with the company of believers who waited for the coming of the Spirit (Acts 1:14). Christ’s appearance brought him to prayer, just as it later would Paul (Acts 9:11), and it raised him up to be a leader in the early church as well as a penman of part of the New Testament Scriptures.

The Date🔗

Though we can’t be certain about the exact date, most scholars believe that the book of James is a very early writing, perhaps the earliest book of the New Testament. Their two main reasons for this are the following: first, the situation depicted in the book seems to fit the earliest stage of apostolic Christianity, the early days of persecution, poverty, and oppression. Secondly, there are no references or allusions to matters pertaining to the Synod of Jerusalem (AD 48 or 49) as described in Acts 15. The Gentile mission had raised many issues for the early Jewish Christians, but there is no trace of these things in this letter. Though we can’t be certain, James’s letter seems to belong to the first 10-15 years of the early church, and prob­ably the early 40s.

The Background🔗

James would have been writing from Jerusalem and addresses his epistle to the “twelve tribes that are scattered abroad” (1:1). This probably means he is writing to Jewish Christians scattered throughout Palestine and beyond. Of course, the exile long ago had already scattered the Jewish people far and wide; even when some had returned, most continued living in what we call the Diaspora, as it continues today. The Diaspora literally means the scattering or “sowing” of the Jewish people throughout the world. But we read of a more immediate scattering in Acts 8:1. Because of the persecution of the early church by the Sanhedrin and other authorities, Christians had to flee for their lives. To them James writes: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations” (1:2).

When you read the epistle closely, you find another important factor in the situation of the earliest readers of this epistle. James frequently mentions the division and oppression within the community itself. Rich and poor are at odds (2:6-7); the rich are oppressing the poor (5:4-6); there is partiality for the rich and disdain for the poor (2:1-4); there were dissensions (4:1-3) produced by selfish ambition and stoked by the weapon of the tongue (3:1-12).

How the early church was a ready prey for Satan, the furious serpent (Rev. 12:15)! It is miraculous that the church survived the onslaught of persecution and the sin within her own ranks. We can ascribe this survival only to the fact that Christ obtained all power in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). From heaven, Christ wielded His scepter to protect His church and fortify her. One of the ways He did this was through the epistle of His brother James to the twelve scat­tered tribes.

The Theme🔗

When you ask people what the book of James is about, many think of suffering or faith and works. Some might say it’s about Christian living, since it deals with many practical issues including temptation, the tongue, prayer, etc. All these things are true; how­ever, the basic theme of this short epistle is the differ­ence between pure religion and vain or carnal religion. James writes: “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (1:26-27). James contrasts “vain religion” with “pure religion.” This is the theme that governs the whole book. All other topics serve to shed light on this basic theme — what true religion is and what it is not. Let me list in summary form what James says about true and false religion:



  • True religion comes down from God and is established in the heart by spiritual regeneration (1:17).
  • True religion arises from the engrafted Word, which saves the soul (1:21).
  • True religion, when tested, is patient, constant, and God-glorifying (1:2-18).
  • True religion is faith working by love (2:14- 26), keeps itself unspotted from the world (1:27), respects not persons (2:1-3), bri­dles the tongue (3:5-12), humbles itself before God (4:8-10), relies on God (4:13-17), and is fervent in prayer (5:13-20).
  • True religion has its per­fect work (1:4) and leads to peace (3:18) and precious fruits unto the coming again of the Lord (5:7).
  • True religion saves from death (5:19) and will be lifted up (4:10).
  • Carnal religion springs from the heart, which “bringeth forth sin,” and sin “bringeth forth death” (1:15).
  • Carnal religion proceeds from the wrath of man (1:20).
  • Vain religion wavers, is unstable in everything, and fades away (1:2-18).
  • Vain religion does not work (2:4-26), promotes envy (3:13-18), promotes lusts (4:1-12), and is wan­ton (5:5).
  • Carnal religion will be judged without mercy (2:13) and will fall into condemnation (5:12).
  • Carnal religion will lead to death (5:20) with the devil and his hosts (4:7).

The Structure🔗

Some see the book of James as a loose collection of teaching on practical topics. But when we read the book closely, we find a unity and progression of the argument. The book alternates between a test and a trait of genuine faith. This is true to life. When a student takes a test, he reveals what he possesses. When a product is tested, it shows whether it has what it needs. Likewise, spiritually speaking, there are a series of tests, each of which reveals whether a person's reli­gion is true or false and his faith genuine or not. And after each test, James emphasizes a trait that faith manifests in this test. Consider the following sequence as we begin our study of this helpful book:

The Test of Trials (1:1-18)

The Trait of Word-centered Obedience (1:19-27)

The Test of Preferences (2:1-13)

The Trait of Lively Faith (2:14-26)

The Test of the Tongue (3:1-12)

The Trait of Heavenly Wisdom (3:13-18)

The Test of the World (4:1-10)

The Trait of Providential Trust (4:11-17)

The Test of Pleasure (5:1-6)

The Trait of Prayerful Patience (5:7- 20)


  1. What can you reconstruct about God’s work in James’s life from the following passages: Mark 6:3; John 7:5; 1 Cor. 15:7; Acts 15:13-21; Acts 21:18-25?
  2. Does the fact that this book was written to Jews (1:1) change how it applies to us?
  3. What are the two main ways that Satan tries to assault the church in every age, including ours?
  4. Why should we be keen to tell the difference between true and false religion?
  5. “Without tests you don’t reveal the traits of some­thing.” Reflect on how that applies to faith.

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