The Epistle of James is the first in a group of epistles customarily called General Epistles, which includes James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude. They are designated as general or “catholic” epistles in the sense that they are universal, not being addressed to any particular individual or church, but to the church as a whole.
The problem of authorship is a major one. There is no question that James wrote the Epistle of James, but which James was the author? Some find at least four men by the name of James in the New Testament. I believe that you can find three who are clearly identified:
1. James, the brother of John and one of the sons of Zebedee. These two men were called “sons of thunder” by our Lord (see Mark 3:17). He was slain by Herod who at the same time put Simon Peter into prison (see Acts 12:1–2).
2. James, the son of Alphaeus, called “James the less” (see Mark 15:40). He is mentioned in the list of apostles, but very little is known concerning him. I automatically dismiss him as the author of this epistle.
3. James, the Lord’s brother. He was a son of Mary and of Joseph, which made him a half brother of the Lord Jesus. In Matthew 13:55 we read: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?” In the beginning, the Lord’s brethren did not believe in Him at all, but the time came when James became head of the church at Jerusalem.
In Acts 15 James seems to have presided over that great council in Jerusalem. At least he made the summation and brought the council to a decision under the leading of the Holy Spirit. I believe it was this James whom Paul referred to in Galatians 2:9, “And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.” This James is the man whom we believe to be the author of this epistle.
This epistle was written about A.D. 45–50. There have been those who have said that James wrote his epistle to combat the teachings of Paul; they argue that James emphasizes works while Paul emphasizes faith. However, the earliest of Paul’s epistles, 1 Thessalonians, was written about A.D. 52–56. Therefore, even Paul’s first epistle was not written until after the Epistle of James, which was the first book of the New Testament to be written.
It is clear that James’ theme is not works, but faith—the same as Paul’s theme, but James emphasizes what faith produces. Both James and Paul speak a great deal of faith and works. They give us the two aspects of justification by faith, both of which are clear in the writings of Paul:
1. Faith—we are not justified by works. Paul wrote, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). And he also wrote, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us …” (Titus 3:5).
2. Works—we are justified for works. In Titus 3:8 Paul says, “This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works….” In Ephesians 2:10 he tells us, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”
Faith is the root of salvation—Paul emphasizes that; works are the fruit of salvation—that is the thing James emphasizes. Or, we can express it this way: Faith is the cause of salvation, and works are the result of salvation.
When Paul says that works will not save you, he is talking about the works of the Law. When James emphasizes that works are essential, he is talking about works of faith, not works of the Law. He said, “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works” (James 2:18). God looks down and sees your heart, and He knows whether you believe or not—that is justification by faith. But your neighbor next door doesn’t see your heart; he can only judge by your works, the fruit of your faith.
The following are what I consider to be the two key verses of this epistle. “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22). “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 2:20).
The Epistle of James deals with the ethics of Christianity, not doctrine. He is really going to bear down on the practical, but he will not get away from the subject of faith. James was evidently a very practical individual. Tradition says that he was given the name “Old Camel Knees” because he spent so much time in prayer.
Due to its practical nature, this epistle has been compared to the Book of Proverbs as well as to the Sermon on the Mount. James argues that justification by faith is demonstrated by works; it must be poured into the test tube of works (ch. 1–2), of words (ch. 3), of worldliness (ch. 4), and of a warning to the rich (ch. 5).
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 53: James. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)