Sometimes, fast food is not fast at all. It can be slow and painful at times. Like the time the pastor’s daughter was late to church, but thought it was a good idea to stop by Wendy’s fast food joint. Tapping on the glass to express her frustration with their slow service, she decided to evoke her father’s name to instill some sense of haste.
“Do you know who I am?” The boy behind glass leaned in to examine her face. His strangely puzzled look tipped her off to something—this was not the church. He doesn’t not have a clue as to who she is, nor who her father is. Her mind spun and her mouth uttered the first thing that made sense in the moment, “I’m Wendy!” It pays to know people—most of the time.
If anyone could name-drop, it was James. He was the brother of Jesus. Mary, their mother, was a virgin when Jesus was conceived (Matt. 1:23-25; Lk. 1:34). However, after the Lord’s birth, Mary and Joseph consummated their marriage and bore more children (Matt. 13:54-56; 12:46; Mk. 3:31; Lk. 18:19; Jn. 7:1-10). James had some pull. He could evoke the name that everyone was talking about—Jesus. But, that is not how he introduces himself in his epistle:
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Ja. 1:1)
Historically, he was known as “James the Just” for his pious life and ascetic practices. So pious was he that legends arose about his holiness. When describing his prayer life, one writer said, “His knees were like the knees of camels.” Another writer took it to new heights, “He was holy from his mother’s womb, wine and strong drink he drank not, neither did he eat flesh, no razor touched his head, he anointed himself not with oil and never used the bath.”
Legend or not, James was something else. Surely, he was a devout man of God as well as a man of trials who eventually dies a martyrs death for his faith in Christ, his brother. Let’s comb the Scriptures to see what they say about James.
James the Sinner
Before his life gave way to legend, James was a sinner raised alongside a brother who showed no sign of indwelling sin. The brothers had the same upbringing, same parental guidance, same experiences and chores, but they were nowhere near the same when it came to faith. See how he treated Jesus with cruel contempt:
“Now the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand. So his brothers said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ For not even his brothers believed in him.” (Jn. 7:2–5)
The brothers despised Jesus. They didn’t want Him or His troubles. “Take your magical beliefs elsewhere, Jesus!” It was not unlike the way the brothers treated Joseph in Genesis. They were sarcastic and cruel. They didn’t want Jesus around. James didn’t want Jesus around.
We might suppose his hard-heart was hardened when he saw the “would-be Messiah” hanging on the cross suffering the death of a criminal. Surely, he wondered to himself how God’s promised Deliverer would die at the hands of the religious and pagan alike. Needless, to say, James was a sinner.
James the Saint
Fast forward. Jesus has died and risen from the grave. In the famous Easter passage, Paul argues for the resurrection of believers by pointing to resurrection of Christ:
“Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” (1 Cor. 15:3–6)
If there was anything that could soften the heart of James, it was seeing his brother resurrected. What other evidence would one need that Jesus was the Christ? Scripture doesn’t say why Jesus appeared to James at this time, but most scholars believe it was during this appearing that James humbled himself and surrendered to His Lord. Assuming this is true, James went from sinner to saint. For even he could not deny the resurrected Christ.
James the Supervisor
Again, fast forward to the period of the first church. James has been elevated to a place of authority. When Peter is freed from prison by an angelic miracle, the news was delivered to “James and the brothers,” who needed to know (Acts 12:17). In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul vindicates his apostleship by evoking the name of James:
“Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.” (Gal. 1:18-19)
In Acts 15, Paul takes a theological disagreement before the Council in Jerusalem, the theocratic metropolis. It was none other than James who led the Council, ruled in Paul’s favor, and issued a synodical letter to the churches on the matter.
James was the leader of the Jerusalem Council, pastor of the Jerusalem church, and commissioner of missionaries. Apostle reported to him, settled disputes with him, and were vindicated by him. Once a sinner turned saint, God was now using James as a Christian leader.
James the Slave
None of this appears in James’ introduction. He makes no claim to title, rank, or family. He doesn’t name-drop, “I’m Jesus’ brother.” He doesn’t title-drop, “I’m the church president.” He doesn’t ego-boast, “I’m a holy man.” Instead, he calls himself “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
A bit is lost in translation. James is not a hired-hand with negotiating powers and set hours for paid work—a servant or demios in the Greek. He calls himself a doulos, which means slave. A slave was fully controlled by his master and deprived of any personal freedoms. His life existed for the will of his owner. James put himself in the lowest category of humanity. He was eating dirt. It was as if the CEO of a major corporation introduced himself as an office janitor. Actually, it was lower than that. There was nothing lower than a slave.
To be fair, being a slave of God was honorable in the eyes of the Jew and the early Christians. Luminaries of the Old Testament were called “slaves of God” like Abraham (Gen. 26:24), Isaac (Gen. 24:14), Jacob (Ezek. 28:25), Job (Job 1:8), Moses (Ex. 14:31), Joshua (Josh. 24:29), Caleb (Num. 14:24), David (2 Sam. 3:18), Isaiah (Is. 20:3), and Daniel (Dan. 6:20). The same is true of New Testament men like Epaphras (Col. 4:12), Timothy (Phil. 1:1), Paul (Rom. 1:1), Peter (2 Pet. 1:1), Jude (Jude 1), John (Rev. 1:1), and even Jesus (Acts 3:13). Though a slave was a social substandard to the culture, it was an honorable way to identify yourself in the kingdom of God. James was a slave of God and his brother, the Lord Jesus Christ.
James the Humble
What can we say of this low introduction for such a high man except that he was humble. James went from sinner to saint to supervisor to slave. He was a humbled man. He was not an apostle. He wasn’t even in the running to take Judas’ place as a Disciple, according to Acts 1. Surely, James recognized his life of denial from which his brother rescued him. He brought nothing to the kingdom and received everything from God alone. What could he brag about?
Humility is a key characteristic of faith, especially in the epistle of James. “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in their humiliation” (Ja. 1:9). God exalts the low and humbles the high. It is the broken who receive salvation. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” said Jesus (Matt. 5:3). “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble,” comments James (Ja. 4:6).
A final note to help us round out James’ life according to biblical history appears in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus identifies his true family as those who believe:
“While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matt. 12:46-50)
James became a new kind of brother to Jesus—a true, spiritual brother. He saw Jesus in a whole new light. He couldn’t call Jesus “my brother” with a good conscience. It lacked the reverence that only Christ deserves. Instead, he called him, “Lord.”