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James - Half Brother of Jesus

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While James grew up in the same house with Jesus in Nazareth, he was miles apart from Jesus’ thinking for the early part of his life.

James did not grow up a believer (John 7:5 John 7:5For neither did his brothers believe in him.
American King James Version×
). Though Jesus and James had the same mother, Jesus was the son not of Joseph, as James was, but of God the Father Himself—a fact that wouldn’t fully sink into James’ mind for years. It wasn’t until Jesus’ resurrection and His appearance to James and the disciples that James finally really understood who his half brother was.

James lived by his brother’s teachings and taught other Church members to do the same.

After Jesus’ instructions recorded in Acts 1:4 Acts 1:4And, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, said he, you have heard of me.
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, James accompanied the apostles, the women who had followed Jesus, his mother and his brothers to the upper room, where they prayed and waited patiently for the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14 Acts 1:14These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
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). James was present when God sent the Holy Spirit to the small group, at which point the New Testament Church was born (Acts 1:14 Acts 1:14These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
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; Acts 2:1 Acts 2:1And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.
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).

From Jesus’ resurrection on, James gave himself entirely to God and soon became an important figure in the early Church. His role was so important that Peter told others to report to James of his miraculous release from prison (Acts 12:17 Acts 12:17But he, beckoning to them with the hand to hold their peace, declared to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, Go show these things to James, and to the brothers. And he departed, and went into another place.
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; Galatians 1:19 Galatians 1:19But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.
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). He apparently became the overseeing pastor of the Jerusalem church, because in Acts 15:13-21 Acts 15:13-21 13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brothers, listen to me: 14 Simeon has declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. 15 And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, 16 After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: 17 That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, on whom my name is called, said the Lord, who does all these things. 18 Known to God are all his works from the beginning of the world. 19 Why my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 20 But that we write to them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses of old time has in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.
American King James Version×
we see him making the final declaration during this early ministerial conference.

The apostle Paul, after his conversion, met with Peter and James before seeing any of the other apostles (Galatians 1:18-19 Galatians 1:18-19 18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.
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). Later we see James advising Paul, and Paul then acting on that advice (Acts 21:18-26 Acts 21:18-26 18 And the day following Paul went in with us to James; and all the elders were present. 19 And when he had saluted them, he declared particularly what things God had worked among the Gentiles by his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said to him, You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: 21 And they are informed of you, that you teach all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. 22 What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that you are come. 23 Do therefore this that we say to you: We have four men which have a vow on them; 24 Them take, and purify yourself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning you, are nothing; but that you yourself also walk orderly, and keep the law. 25 As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication. 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them.
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).

The family of Jesus

Jesus grew up in a sizable family that included four half brothers—James, Joses, Simon and Judas (who would later write the epistle of Jude)—and “His sisters,” showing there were at least two (Matthew 13:55-56 Matthew 13:55-56 55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brothers, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? 56 And his sisters, are they not all with us? From where then has this man all these things?
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).

Because the names of Christ’s brothers are passed down to us in their Greek forms, it’s easy to lose sight of how typically Jewish Jesus’ family was. Jesus Himself was Jewish (Hebrew 7:14), because both Mary and Joseph were descended from the Israelite tribe of Judah (Matthew 1:1-16 Matthew 1:1-16 1 The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brothers; 3 And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram; 4 And Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon; 5 And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; 6 And Jesse begat David the king; and David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias; 7 And Solomon begat Roboam; and Roboam begat Abia; and Abia begat Asa; 8 And Asa begat Josaphat; and Josaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Ozias; 9 And Ozias begat Joatham; and Joatham begat Achaz; and Achaz begat Ezekias; 10 And Ezekias begat Manasses; and Manasses begat Amon; and Amon begat Josias; 11 And Josias begat Jechonias and his brothers, about the time they were carried away to Babylon: 12 And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechonias begat Salathiel; and Salathiel begat Zorobabel; 13 And Zorobabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor; 14 And Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud; 15 And Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob; 16 And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.
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; Luke 3:23 Luke 3:23And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli,
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- 38). Jesus’ Hebrew name Yeshua (or Joshua)—the same as the Israelite hero who conquered the Promised Land—means “God is salvation” (see Matthew 1:21 Matthew 1:21And she shall bring forth a son, and you shall call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
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).

The name of Jesus’ mother, Mary, is a shortened form of Miriam , the sister of Moses and Aaron. Joseph ( Yosef in Hebrew), Jesus’ stepfather, was ultimately named for the Hebrew patriarch Joseph , one of the 12 sons of Jacob and father of the Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.

As for Jesus’ half brothers, James is the anglicized Greek form of the Hebrew Ya’akov, or Jacob, the same name as that of the Hebrew patriarch who was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham. Joses is another form of Joseph. Simon’s Hebrew name was Simeon, the name of another of Jacob’s sons and father of one of the 12 tribes of Israel.

The Hebrew name of Judas (or Jude) was Yehudah (rendered Judah in English), the name of another of Jacob’s 12 sons, from which the word Jew is derived. The popularity of these names is evident in that all of them are used, often repeatedly, for other people mentioned in the New Testament.

James sees the light

Throughout Jesus’ ministry His half brother James, along with the other three brothers, didn’t give Jesus the respect due Him (John 7:3-5 John 7:3-5 3 His brothers therefore said to him, Depart hence, and go into Judaea, that your disciples also may see the works that you do. 4 For there is no man that does any thing in secret, and he himself seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world. 5 For neither did his brothers believe in him.
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). It appears they thought He was not thinking clearly, and perhaps they wanted Him gone from their home (Mark 3:21 Mark 3:21And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.
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, Mark 3:31-35 Mark 3:31-35 31 There came then his brothers and his mother, and, standing without, sent to him, calling him. 32 And the multitude sat about him, and they said to him, Behold, your mother and your brothers without seek for you. 33 And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brothers? 34 And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.
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). James and Jesus’ other brothers showed Him no honor, which saddened Jesus, who spoke from personal experience when He said, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor” (Mark 6:4 Mark 6:4But Jesus, said to them, A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.
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, New International Version, emphasis added throughout).

Even at His death Jesus entrusted the care of His mother, Mary, not to His half brothers but to His disciple and close friend John (John 19:26-27 John 19:26-27 26 When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he said to his mother, Woman, behold your son! 27 Then said he to the disciple, Behold your mother! And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.
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). As The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia explains:

“A bond of fellowship had … been established between John and Mary that was closer than her nearer blood relationship with her own sons, who up to this time had regarded the course of Jesus with disapproval, and had no sympathy with his mission. In the home of John she would find consolation for her loss, as the memories of the wonderful life of her son would be recalled …” (1979, “Brothers of the Lord”).

However, after Jesus’ resurrection James and his brothers joined the company of believers, now convinced Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah and Son of God (Acts 1:14 Acts 1:14These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
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). A special appearance by Jesus to James, mentioned only in 1 Corinthians 15:7 1 Corinthians 15:7After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.
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, probably played a major part in James’ change of heart.

When James wrote his epistle some 30 years later, his humility is evident by the way he saw himself: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1 James 1:1James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.
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). James identified himself as the servant of Jesus rather than as a close relative.

He was not willing to boast that he was half brother of the Son of God. He may also have remembered how shamefully he had treated Jesus by rejecting Him in previous years. Jude identified himself similarly, while also identifying himself as a brother of James (Jude 1).

The epistle of James

In many ways James’ epistle resembles Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, loaded as it is with encouragement and filled with gems to help build Christian character.

The second-century writer and historian Hegesippus referred to Jesus’ brother as James the Just and characterized him as zealous for the law of God. Many statements from James’ letter prove Hegesippus was right; it represents a book of Christian proverbs that cover subjects that touch many aspects of Christian life.

James apparently became the overseeing pastor of the Jerusalem church, because in Acts 15:13-21 Acts 15:13-21 13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brothers, listen to me: 14 Simeon has declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. 15 And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, 16 After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: 17 That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, on whom my name is called, said the Lord, who does all these things. 18 Known to God are all his works from the beginning of the world. 19 Why my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 20 But that we write to them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses of old time has in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.
American King James Version×
we see him making the final declaration during this early ministrerial conference.

Hegesippus wrote that James’ knees resembled those of a camel because the skin on his knees became callused from spending hours each day in prayer. We can’t know for sure whether this description is accurate, but we do know that James encouraged Christians to pray faithfully. He cited the example of the prophet Elijah: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit” (James 5:17-18 James 5:17-18 17 Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. 18 And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.
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). James preached what he practiced and practiced what he preached.

Indeed, James was crystal-clear about another subject fundamental to true Christianity—that a Christian must prove his faith by his actions—”works”—and that works perfect one’s faith. “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only,” he wrote (James 2:24 James 2:24You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
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).

Today we might say “put your money where your mouth is” or “talk is cheap; prove your words by your actions.” Jesus said people would recognize His disciples by God’s love expressed through them (John 13:35 John 13:35By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another.
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). Similarly, James said Christ’s disciples would prove their faith by their works (James 2). Talking about Christianity is one thing. Acting on it is quite another. James lived by his brother’s teachings and taught other Church members to do the same.

Themes of James’ epistle

James wrote his countrymen-the 12 scattered tribes of Israel (James 1:1 James 1:1James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.
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)-giving practical instruction about Christian life. He taught about wisdom and careful use of the tongue and reminded them that true godly service consists of active love and purity (James 1:27 James 1:27Pure 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.
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). He wrote at length about patience —patience in trial (James 1:2 James 1:2My brothers, count it all joy when you fall into divers temptations;
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), patience in good works (James 1:22-25 James 1:22-25 22 But be you doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. 23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like to a man beholding his natural face in a glass: 24 For he beholds himself, and goes his way, and straightway forgets what manner of man he was. 25 But whoever looks into the perfect law of liberty, and continues therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.
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), patience under provocation (James 3:1-7 James 3:1-7 1 My brothers, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation. 2 For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. 3 Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. 4 Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, wherever the governor wants. 5 Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasts great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindles! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. 7 For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and has been tamed of mankind:
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), patience under oppression (James 5:7 James 5:7Be patient therefore, brothers, to the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, and has long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.
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), patience under persecution (James 5:10 James 5:10Take, my brothers, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience.
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). The foundation of patience, he wrote, is the knowledge that Christ will come to right all wrongs (James 5:8 James 5:8Be you also patient; establish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draws near.
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).

He taught godly wisdom. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him,” he wrote (James 1:5 James 1:5If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that gives to all men liberally, and upbraides not; and it shall be given him.
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).

When we ask, we must believe beyond any doubt that what God has promised He will deliver. God is pleased to freely give to anyone who truly believes He is able to deliver on His promises. “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting,” James wrote, “for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind … He is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6-8 James 1:6-8 6 But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavers is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. 7 For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. 8 A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.
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).

James addressed a crucially important topic, sin . Today the world has developed a bad habit of scorning anyone who speaks of sin. Yet God scorns anyone who refuses to stand against it. James tells us how sin develops and where it leads. It begins with lust, the desire to have or do something we should not have or do (James 1:14 James 1:14But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.
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). If we don’t control our thoughts, our desires eventually develop into sinful actions. When such desires are full grown—when they start controlling us rather than our controlling them—sin ends in the ultimate penalty of eternal death (verse 15).

True religion revealed

The epistle of James presents many problems to those who hold to the view that Jesus taught we no longer need to keep God’s laws, or that those laws were somehow abolished at Christ’s death and resurrection. But, if anyone knew how Jesus lived and what He taught and believed, it was James, a member of Christ’s own household.

James repeatedly upholds the need to keep God’s laws, emphasizing the Ten Commandments. He refers to God’s law not as something unnecessary or optional, but as “the royal law” (James 2:8 James 2:8If you fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, you do well:
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). He specifically mentions several of the Ten Commandments, then calls them “ the law of liberty ” (James 2:11-12 James 2:11-12 11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if you commit no adultery, yet if you kill, you are become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak you, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.
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).

Why that designation? Because James understood that only by obeying God’s laws can mankind experience true freedom —freedom from want, sorrow and suffering, from the degrading and painful consequences of sin. He encourages each of us to be a “doer of the law” (James 4:11 James 4:11Speak not evil one of another, brothers. He that speaks evil of his brother, and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law, and judges the law: but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge.
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).

James drew an analogy of looking into a mirror to make his point about the importance of God’s Ten Commandments. “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it , and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does ” (James 1:23-25 James 1:23-25 23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like to a man beholding his natural face in a glass: 24 For he beholds himself, and goes his way, and straightway forgets what manner of man he was. 25 But whoever looks into the perfect law of liberty, and continues therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.
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).

In other words, said James, we should look into the perfect law of liberty and evaluate where we stand in relation to God’s holy, spiritual laws, which help us understand what sin is (Romans 7:7 Romans 7:7What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. No, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, You shall not covet.
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, 12). When we look into a mirror and scrutinize our physical appearance, we may see a smudge on our face or a hair out of place. Yet, if we put the mirror away, we tend to forget our imperfections rather quickly because they are no longer visible to us. James shows how this physical analogy reflects an empty Christianity that requires nothing of us beyond mere belief (James 1:26-27 James 1:26-27 26 If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridles not his tongue, but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. 27 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.
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).

James tells us that God’s law shows our internal imperfections—those of the heart and mind. God’s perfect law of liberty, including the Ten Commandments, is like a spiritual mirror we can look into and see ourselves for what we are. We must never put this mirror away; we must keep it ever in mind to motivate us to deal with our imperfections. James was saying, in effect, that we can’t simply talk Christianity; we must live it. Mere talk accomplishes nothing. (To learn why God’s law and the need to change are so important, be sure to ready our free Bible study aids The Ten Commandments and Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion .)

James’ living faith

Not long after writing his epistle, James was martyred in Jerusalem in A.D. 62. According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, James was accused by the high priest and condemned to death by stoning ( Antiquities of the Jews , Book 20, chap. 9, sec. 1). Eusebius, a fourth-century church historian, adds details of James’ death. He states that the scribes and Pharisees took James to a public place, the top of a wing of the temple, and “demanded that he should renounce the faith of Christ before all the people …” But, rather than deny Jesus, James “declared himself fully before the whole multitude, and confessed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, our Savior and Lord” ( Ecclesiastical History , 1995, pp. 75-76).

Hegesippus tells us that at this point “they went up and threw down the just man [from the temple height], and said to each other, ‘Let us stone James the Just.’ And they began to stone him, for he was not killed by the fall, but he knelt down and said, ‘I entreat thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ [thus following his brother’s example to the last]. One of them, who was a fuller, took the club with which he beat out clothes and struck the just man on the head. And thus he suffered martyrdom” (quoted in Biblical Archaeology Review , November-December 2002, p. 32).

Amazingly, scholars have recently announced an incredible discovery—what appears to be the actual limestone box in which James’ bones were entombed after his death (see “Surprising Archaeological Find: Proof of Jesus’ Existence? ,” beginning on page 20). As the younger half brother of Jesus, for years James had trouble believing Jesus was the very Son of God. But Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection changed all that. Seeing the one he knew so well killed and then raised to life again was a life-transforming experience for James. No longer was he miles apart from Jesus; now he was truly a spiritual brother to Jesus, bound to Him through faith and God’s Spirit.

James finally came to realize that Jesus had given His life for him. When the time came, James confidently and faithfully gave his life for the brother he had once rejected.

James taught about faith, telling us that true faith is demonstrated by what we are, how we live and what we do. “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also,” he wrote (James 2:26 James 2:26For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
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).

His life and death were a shining example of what it means to live—and die—by true faith. Of course, that is not the end, for James the Just will be brought back to life at the resurrection of the just when Christ returns, when he will continue to follow His brother’s perfect example through all eternity. May we all do the same.

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