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James: Leader, Martyr, Jesus’ Brother

By David Devenish, on Tuesday, July 28, 2015


Imagine growing up with a brother who never got anything wrong. In any argument he always had the answer, and by age 12 he was smarter than most of the adults around him. He helped with the family business, carpentry, until one day he becomes a preacher and a healer who starts drawing crowds, and these crowds start claiming a lot of things about him. You’d be a bit freaked out right? Well, that’s exactly how James would have felt about his older brother, Jesus. We read in Mark 2:21 that Jesus’ family thought he was “out of his mind”. Yet we know that Jesus appeared to James after the resurrection (1 Cor 15:7) and so it’s clear that at some point, James did believe Jesus was who he said he was.

James was clearly an influential figure in the church, as he quickly became the leader of the Jerusalem church. We see in Acts 15 that although Peter and Paul give testimonies in a discussion between the apostles and elders, it is James who makes the final decision. However, it is clear that he was respected not because he was Jesus’ brother, but because of his wisdom, respect, character and understanding of Scripture. As a leader of the church, this meant that he would become a target for those persecuting Christianity and we can read in external sources, such as Josephus, that James was martyred in Jerusalem around AD62.

Why Was the book of James Written?

After James became leader of church in Jerusalem, a young believer in Jesus called Stephen challenged the Jewish leaders about the hypocrisy of worshipping in the temple but crucifying the one Stephen believed to be the Messiah. Stephen was stoned to death and most of the believers had to flee Jerusalem as refugees and went to live elsewhere either in northern Israel, Galilee or mainly in Syria.

As they fled, like all refugees, they faced many problems, such as poverty, homelessness (or at least temporary accommodation away from home comforts), having to work for wealthy landowners or businessmen who exploited them (James refers a lot to this), grumbling amongst each other because some seemed to get a better deal. Some of the refugees were richer and they may have been able to establish themselves better and had a tendency to look down on their poorer brothers and sisters. So the book of James will address many issues of social justice, and look at how our standing before God leaves us all equal.

Also many of those who fled would have been relatively new believers. Though they understood that they were ‘saved by grace through faith’, some of them were unclear that to be truly born again by grace of God was intended to make a dramatic change in our lives and this was not simply a slogan to quote when convenient. This also contrasted what they had previously been taught as Jews, as although they knew they were part of God’s people by grace, they saw the law and works as something to be adhered to please God rather than something to live out as a result of the life-changing work of Jesus on the cross.

With that in mind, I’m really looking forward to seeing new Preachers come from this series, and exploring the book of James as a church with its vital messages for today.