Gospel Gazette, Bible Articles

Vol. 1, No. 6 Page 5 June 1999

Gospel Gazette, Bible Articles

James, Brother of Jesus

By Roger A. Rush

     There is some question as to exactly how many men bore the name James in the New Testament, but there were three who figured prominently in the ministry of Christ and the history of the early church.  They were James the son of Zebedee and brother of John and an apostle (Matthew 4:21; 10:2; Mark 1:19; Luke 5:10), James the Less, son of Alphaeus and also an apostle (Matthew 10:3; Acts 1:13) and James the brother of our Lord (Matthew 13:35; Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:18, 19).  Jesus had three other brothers in addition to James.  They were Joses, Simon and Judas (Matthew 13:55).  The Lord's sisters are also mentioned, but not by name (Matthew 13:56).  We are not told how many sisters he may have had, but there must have been at least two.  Roman Catholics, because of their belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary, argue that those who are mentioned as the brothers and sisters of our Lord were his cousins, or stepbrothers and sisters, children of Joseph from a previous marriage.  There is absolutely no support for this idea in the Bible.

     James, like the Lord's other siblings, was not supportive of Jesus during his early ministry.  The apostle John makes the point that even his own brothers did not believe in him (John 7:5).  However, that was to change.  Among those disciples who were found with the apostles in Jerusalem following the Lord's ascension were his brothers, which obviously included James, who was to later play a prominent role in the Jerusalem church (Acts 1:14).

     According to Paul, an inspired apostle, Jesus appeared to James following his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7).  Jerome, a fourth century Christian author, records a legend which says that James had made a vow to not eat or drink until he had seen Jesus raised from the dead.  Supposedly, Jesus appeared to James and said, "My brother, eat thy bread, for the Son of man is risen from the dead" (F. W. Farrar, The Pulpit Commentary, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950, Vol. 19, p. 484).  As already noted, before the crucifixion, his brothers were unbelievers.  It was the resurrection of Jesus which brought them to faith.

     James became a leading figure in the church at Jerusalem.  When Peter was released from prison he came to the house of Mary where many in the church had come together to pray for him (Acts 12:12).  According to Peter's account of that evening, the Lord had instructed him to tell James and the brethren of his prison escape, which Peter then did (Acts 12:17).

     When the controversy arose over certain Judaizers who were demanding the circumcision of Gentle Christians, Paul and Barnabas met in Jerusalem with the apostles and elders, and James played a significant role in that meeting (Acts 15:13-21).  It was James who reminded them of Peter's encounter with Cornelius and how the Gentiles were to be brought into the kingdom.  He further argued that this was in agreement with what the prophets had predicted.  He then recommended they write a letter to Gentile churches in which they would be told to "abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood" (Acts 15:20).  The apostles, elders and the whole church agreed, and it was done.

     Following Paul's third missionary tour, he returned to Jerusalem.  One day after his arrival in the city he reported to James and the elders what God had accomplished through him among the Gentiles (Acts 21:18-25).  It is not surprising that James is again singled out among those in the church at Jerusalem.  It was Paul who referred to James, along with Peter and John, as pillars in the church who had extended to him and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, and encouraged their work among the Gentiles (Galatians 2:9-10).

     But, it is for the New Testament epistle which bears his name that James is most remembered.  This epistle offered such a devastating blow to the doctrine of salvation by faith only or alone that Martin Luther refused to accept it as canonical, and referred to it as "right strawy" and thus of no value.  Paul had written that Abraham was justified by faith (Romans 3:28).  James asserted that Abraham was justified by works (James 2:23-24).  But, the passages were not contradictory as Luther believed. Rather, they were complementary.  Together they underscored the necessity of a living faith which always produces active obedience.  This idea is plainly set forth in Hebrews 11 where believers were commended for demonstrating faith through action or deeds.  Abel's faith produced an acceptable sacrifice.  Enoch's faith led to a walk with God.  Noah's faith built an ark.  Abraham's faith caused him to pack up and move at God's bidding, and, ultimately led him to the point where, at God's command, he was prepared to offer his son, Isaac.  Both Paul and James understood the relationship between faith and works (obedience) in regard to man's relationship with God.  Luther, however, did not!

     Other themes which James touched upon in his epistle included the nature of temptation and its source (1:2-18); pure religion (1:19-27); the dangers of the tongue (3:1-12); true and false wisdom (3:13-18); the source of discord among brethren (4:1-10); the future and how to face it (4:11-17); the dangers of wealth (5:1-6); and patience, prayer and confession (5:7-20).  Addressed to the twelve tribes of the dispersion, it was among the most practical epistles of the New Testament.

According to Josephus, the high priest, Ananus (his father was also called Ananus), a man bold in temperament and very indolent, convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man called James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others.  He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, page 598).

     Hegesippus, a second century writer, says that James was thrown down from the pinnacle of the temple, stoned, and finally killed by a fuller's club (Jack P. Lewis, Historical Backgrounds of Bible History, page 141).

     Although at first unwilling to accept Jesus as the Son of God, James came to be a staunch believer and a respected leader in the early church.  Ultimately, he died for his faith.

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