MANual Lessons: A Letter from James, the Half-Brother of Jesus

Do your actions reflect a changed life?  The book of James tells us it should.

Throughout my year-long journey through The MANual, an NIV Bible for Men, we have heard the stories and lessons of our biblical ancestors who faced persecution for following the ways of Jesus Christ. The book of James –the twentieth of the New Testament, is considered a “how-to” about the Christian life with the subtitle “Faith that Works.” 

Which James is He?

Many believe this book comes directly from Jesus’ half-brother James. However, there is some dispute about the author’s lineage.

This James was not James the Great, the brother of John, who was one of the two sons of Zebedee among the first disciples of Jesus. Many believe that this was James the Just, who was a son of Mary and Joseph and therefore a brother to Joseph, Simon, Judas, and their sisters (according to Matthew 13:55).  

According to Wikipedia, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, as well as some Lutherans, teach that James and others named in the New Testament as “brothers” of Jesus, were not actually Mary’s biological children.

The Roman Catholic Church, in particular, asserts the perpetual virginity of Mary, meaning her virginity was not just prior to the birth of Jesus, but during and afterward. This position first appears in a late 2nd-century text called the Protoevangelium of James (meaning “proto-gospel” or “precursor to the gospel”). Also called the Infancy Gospel of James, the Protoevangelium claims to give additional details about Mary’s birth and childhood as well as about the birth of Jesus. This would place James as a cousin or step-brother from Joseph’s previous marriage (though some believe Joseph himself had been a perpetual virgin).

Some scholars contend the Protoevangelium was written in the mid-second century so if James was killed in A.D. 62, it would post-date the epistle that was written around A.D. 49, prior to the Jerusalem council in A.D. 50. (Acts 12:2 states King Agrippa, who reigned from 11 B.C to A.D. 44, had the apostle James –stated as John’s brother, killed by the sword. Also, Acts 12:17; 15:13 references another James as Jesus’ half-brother). 

Today most Protestant churches (one of which I attend) believe that Mary had other children besides Jesus. The Catholic tradition though identifies James as another of the twelve disciples James, son of Alphaeus, also known as James, the Less.

All this could send you into a comparison of Catholic and Protestant beliefs (but that may be a possible subject for a future post).

The key point is that regardless of his lineage, this James was a leader of the church in Jerusalem with a lot to say about how to live a Christian life.

About The Book of James

The five chapters of James’ epistle, express his concern for the persecuted Christians who were once part of the church. After Stephen, one of the deacons of the early church was martyred, the persecution increased. The “twelve tribes” of Jewish Christians quickly scattered throughout the Mediterranean world so James wanted to encourage them in their faith during those difficult times. 

After his opening greeting, James gets immediately to his point: that when not if troubles and temptations come your way, you must consider it great joy. James says the testing of your faith will develop the perseverance that makes you a mature Christian (1:2-4). James says God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation (1:12). He suggests we should ask our generous God for wisdom, and He will give it to us.


You can’t really know the depth of your faith and character until you see how you react under pressure. James tells us to not divide our loyalty between God and the world. God wants to make us mature and complete so use any pain or suffering as opportunities for growth that will increase our trust and joy in Him. 

  • What current tests of life are you encountering? 
  • Why is it hard to consider trials and temptations “joy”?
  • What steps are you taking to strengthen your faith and trust in God’s plan for your life?

James finishes the first chapter with a message that is good for everyone: it is good to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry (1:19). Anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. James tells us to not just listen to God’s Word, but do what it says, otherwise, we are fooling ourselves. 

Chapter 2 argues against favoritism and the necessity of good deeds. James presents three principles:

  1. Commitment is an essential part of faith.
  2. Right actions are a by-product of true faith.
  3. Faith without deeds doesn’t do any good.

James’ teachings are consistent with Paul’s teaching about salvation through faith alone. Paul emphasizes faith alone brings salvation. James argues that the result of our faith leads to a changed life that produces good works.

In chapter 3, James compares the damage from an out-of-control tongue to a raging fire.

Controlling Your Tongue

Our tongue’s wickedness is often the source of displaced anger that leads to an overuse of profanity. Satan uses our words to divide and pit people against each other. A few words spoken in anger can destroy a relationship that took years to build. Before you speak, remember words are like fire – you can neither control the damage nor reverse how much damage they can do.

  • Do you have difficulty with anger or hurtful words? 
  • Do you think before you speak or do you just speak your mind? 

James continues chapter 3 stating how true wisdom is the measure of a person’s character. He says once you understand God’s ways and begin to live an honorable life, you will demonstrate your faith by doing good works in humility. He says jealousy and selfish ambition are not God’s type of wisdom but the demonic works of the devil. Yet God’s wisdom is pure, peace-loving, and gentle at all times. Wisdom shows no favoritism and is always sincere. Wisdom helps us become peace-makers who reap the harvest of righteous living. 

Chapter 4 is about drawing closer to God. James suggests that the quarrels and fights come from evil desires within us. He says people are jealous of what others have because their motives are all wrong; they only want what gives us pleasure. He says the cure for those evil desires is humility. Pride makes us self-centered and leads us to believe we deserve all we can attain. But bowing in humility, helps us come closer to God and resist the devil’s temptations. He again comes back to warn us; this time against judging and criticizing others (4:11-12). He also warns against self-confidence and boasting which is evil (4:13-17). James also warns the rich that their love of their wealth will stand against them on the day of judgment if they adopt worldly standards over God’s standards. 

James finishes his letter about being patient as we wait for the Lord’s return. He wants us to pray and call for the elders of the church to pray over us. He wants us to confess our sins to each other  (James 5:16) and pray for each other so we may be healed. James wants all believers to help bring back those who wander from the faith.

God Buddy Focus

The book of James emphasizes faith in action. It says the church must serve with compassion, speak lovingly and truthfully, and live in obedience to God’s commands. It says to love one another like Jesus.  

The belief in faith alone for our salvation does not require good deeds but actually produces good works as a response to what Jesus did for us on the cross.

Faith in action also requires accountability. It requires tearing down our carefully-constructed facades of moral superiority. It requires that we admit our ugly habits and sins by making ourselves vulnerable to your GodBuddies. James would say, if you are not really willing to come clean about your sins, you can’t experience the true joy of the Christian life. 

This week:

  • Ask God to help you find wisdom and clarity in the book of James. 
  • Check in with a GodBuddy. Confess your sins of this past week, especially those where you were not slow to anger nor quick to listen.
  • Discuss the types of good deeds that appear as an outpuring of your belief in Jesus.

The next post is about Peter’s two letters to the early Christians. 


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