James: The Brother of Jesus
We are told in the opening verse of the letter that James is a bondservant of both God and the Lord Jesus Christ (James 1.1). This James is not the brother of John, but the brother of the Lord Jesus. He is a brother in the sense that both Jesus and James had the same mother named Mary, but not the same father named Joseph. The Holy Spirit conceived within the womb of Mary the Lord Jesus. So then, James is the half-brother of Jesus.
James and his brothers did not believe in Jesus according to John 7.5. It is thought that James did not receive Christ as Savior until some point after Jesus’ resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15.7 says that after Jesus had risen from the dead, He was seen by James.
I grew up thinking that Mary remained a virgin her whole life. I was taught that since Mary had no other children, Jesus did not have actual brothers or sisters. The Bible teaches that Joseph did have an intimate relationship with Mary after the birth of Christ (Matthew 1.25). Luke 2.7 says that Jesus was Mary’s firstborn Son. There would be no need to say firstborn if others did not come after Him. All this to say that James is the brother of Jesus. But he was also the leader of the early church.
James: The Leader of the Church
William Varner writes,
If a stranger arrived in Jerusalem or in Antioch between the years a.d. 40–62 and asked, “Who is the person in charge of this movement?” any knowledgeable Christian, including Peter or John or Paul, would have answered without hesitation, “James.” Moreover, he would not have needed to add “the brother of Jesus” because everyone would have known that there was only one person who would be instantly recognized by that single name without any additional description or qualifier.
Varner, W. (2012). James. (H. W. House, W. H. Harris III, & A. W. Pitts, Eds.) (p. 9). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
Acts, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians all reinforce the argument that James was the indisputable leader of the early church. Acts 12 teaches that when Peter was released, he wanted James to know about it first (Acts 12.17). Acts 15.19 tells us that James made the decision to not trouble the Gentiles to become Jews before they became Christians (Acts 15.19). The early church looked to James for direction and wisdom.
If James led the early church, Peter and Paul did not. So, why has James been marginalized by two main traditions of religious thought: Catholicism and Protestantism? Catholics prefer Peter because of their unbiblical view of apostolic succession through a line of popes who consider themselves to be vicars of Christ on earth. The Catholic doctrine indicates that Peter was the first pope. But the Protestants have problems as well. They often elevate Paul as the early leader of the church. Paul has become an unofficial pope of sorts from their perspective. Yet Paul said of himself that he was the least of the apostles and the chief of sinners. So, James is the brother of Jesus and the leader of the early church.
James to the Twelve Tribes
The Bible tells us that James wrote to Jewish people who were still scattered since the days when Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple of Jerusalem, burned down the city in 586 BC, and brought the remaining inhabitants back to Babylon under captivity. The scattering spoken of in James must refer to the Babylonian captivity because it was probably written in between AD 45-48. The scattering of the Jewish people during the Jewish War with Rome had not yet occurred. James wrote to Jewish-Christian congregations which were established from Syria eastward.
James and Wisdom
The theme of this letter is well stated in James 3.13-18. This passage urges us to follow heavenly wisdom rather than earthly wisdom. This heavenly wisdom is God’s wisdom. The choice between two ways is the Jewish approach to ethics. If you think you can have it both ways, James 1.8 says you are double-minded or double-souled. This makes you unstable in all your ways. James 4.8 tells the double-minded or double-souled to draw near to God, cleanse their hands, and purify their hearts. Those who purify their hearts are those who determine one thing: to follow heavenly wisdom.
The key to integrity is pursuing heavenly wisdom. Those who pursue heavenly wisdom have commendable behavior. Those who pursue earthy wisdom have condemnable behavior. Our goal is to realize that the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (James 3.18).