Take part in TGC’s Read the Bible initiative, where we’re encouraging Christians and churches to read together through God’s Word in a year. This article is adapted from Steadfast: A Devotional Bible Study on the Book of James (TGC, 2020).
I always wanted to ride a school bus, but I was a carpool kid. My mom regularly drove our neighborhood carpool in her mustard-yellow station wagon with wood paneling down the side.
On the drive home from school, everyone would give a report on their day. This typically included some drama, a bit of tattling, victories, some frustrations, hurt feelings, and lots of questions—always lots of questions. Mom was somehow able to address the vast majority of topics and concerns being aired. She would jump from topic to topic, shooting arrows of advice into the variety of situations needing her wisdom.
“George, you ought to let Tim borrow your tennis shoes. You have an extra pair, and it’s the right thing to do.”
“Susan, I know spelling is hard for you. But I’m so proud of how you’re sticking with it even though it takes you extra time.”
“Courtney, I’m sorry you didn’t get invited to Janie’s slumber party. But that doesn’t mean you should un-invite her from yours.”
And on. And on. These arrows of advice were Mom’s attempts at speaking into the real struggles we were facing. Her instruction was practical, loving, and meant to help us do the right thing.
Wisdom for Everyday Life
Reading the book of James can feel like we’re buckled in the backseat of his station wagon, on a five-chapter ride, with arrows of advice aimed right at us. Like the wisdom offered during my carpool rides, James is extremely practical. Moving quickly from one topic to another, James meets us in the routine moments of our day.
James meets us in the routine moments of our day.
He meets us in our suffering, our illness, and our poverty. He confronts us in our speech, our wealth, and our pride. He instructs us when we lack the wisdom to know what to do next. James speaks into these real, daily struggles by offering short commands (more than half of the 108 verses in the letter are commands!) on how a Christian should live.
Author and Audience
The book of James is likely the first New Testament letter written. Most scholars agree that the James who wrote this letter was none other than the half-brother of Jesus, the biological son of Mary and Joseph (Matt. 13:55). Although James would have grown up with Jesus, the Gospels give us insight into his unbelief in Jesus prior to his resurrection (John 7:3–5; Mark 3:20–21).
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, James became not only a follower of Jesus, but also a leader in the early church (1 Cor. 15:3–8; Gal. 1:19; Acts 15:13–17). Fittingly, James introduces himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1).
James is writing to the first Christians, primarily Jews who have recently converted to Christianity. He addresses his letter to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1). Historically, the “twelve tribes” refer to twelve sons of Jacob, who formed the nation of Israel and were children of the promise given to Abraham (Gen. 15). The “dispersion” refers to Jews who remained scattered outside of the land of Israel after the exile (1 Chron. 9:1). James now uses these terms to highlight that the church is the true Israel, scattered throughout the world.
It’s important to remember that James is speaking primarily to Christians—those who have already been given saving faith in Jesus. So, the commands given are not informing unbelievers about how they will earn God’s favor or receive salvation if and when they obey the commands.
Obedience does not earn God’s love and acceptance; it’s a result of the love and acceptance already ours.
James is first and foremost telling believers that they will, as a result of their true faith, reflect the salvation that is already theirs in Christ. Obedience does not earn God’s love and acceptance; it’s a result of the love and acceptance already ours.
How Should We Respond to the Book of James?
Our response as we read, study, and apply the book of James should be twofold. First, as we look honestly in the mirror James holds up, we are to ask ourselves if we’re only hearers of God’s Word or if we are, in fact, doers too (1:22).
As we look honestly in the mirror James holds up, we are to ask ourselves if we’re only hearers of God’s Word or if we are doers too.
James is concerned with how Christians live out their faith. We’re to ask questions such as: Is my life characterized by living works of faith? Do my actions, words, and works reflect what I profess to believe? Am I humble? Do I love others the way I should? Am I steadfast in prayer?
As the answers to those questions become clear, we realize we don’t (and can’t) do all the Lord requires us to do. We try to obey and repeatedly fail. We strive to live up to the standards James has set out and consistently fall short. As we try and fail, however, we become increasingly aware of our need for Jesus—the One who was perfectly obedient in every way.
Therefore, our second response should be to rest in the finished and complete work of Christ—the One whose genuine faith, perfect obedience, and steadfastness through trials has earned our salvation.
He is the One who was perfectly steadfast under trials (1:12); he is the One who perfectly kept the whole law (2:10); he is the One who has pure religion (1:27); he is the One who perfectly submitted himself to God (4:7); and he is the One who humbled himself and whom God exalted (4:10).
Studying James should make us long for and love the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ: that we belong—body, mind, and soul—to our faithful Savior.