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). 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, 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). 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 2:1).
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; Galatians 1:19). He apparently became the overseeing pastor of the Jerusalem church, because in Acts 15:13-21 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). Later we see James advising Paul, and Paul then acting on that advice (Acts 21:18-26).
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).
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; Luke 3:23- 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).
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). It appears they thought He was not thinking clearly, and perhaps they wanted Him gone from their home (Mark 3:21, Mark 3:31-35). 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, 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). 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). A special appearance by Jesus to James, mentioned only in 1 Corinthians 15:7, 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 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 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 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).
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). 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)-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). He wrote at length about patience—patience in trial (James 1:2), patience in good works (James 1:22-25), patience under provocation (James 3:1-7), patience under oppression (James 5:7), patience under persecution (James 5:10). The foundation of patience, he wrote, is the knowledge that Christ will come to right all wrongs (James 5:8).
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).
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 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). 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). He specifically mentions several of the Ten Commandments, then calls them "the law of liberty" (James 2:11-12).
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 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).
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, 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 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).
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.