Book of James: Summary, Meaning & Application


The Book of James is an important book in the Bible. Throughout history, people have had different opinion on what it means and a few have even said that it’s not helpful for Christians to study! Because of this, James has sometimes been misunderstood, misused, and neglected.

In this article, we will examine what the Epistle of James is about and summarize its teaching so we can apply it to our lives.

The Book of James explains how to receive wisdom from God’s Word. Wisdom from God results in a life that is fruitful even in the face of hardships. James applies the teachings of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount, to everyday life. It explains what a life of obedience to Christ looks like.

One of the keys to understanding the book of James is that it is an application of the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus taught.

James Summary

James is not just about trying to get to heaven when you die. The biblical Gospel is living as people of God’s Kingdom now, not just in the future. Grace release power to live everyday as people of God’s Kingdom.

James and sermon on Mount is not a call to try to live a better life. It describes God’s Kingdom, not man’s wisdom. It’s not a band-aid for a broken and hurting world. It’s an entirely different way of looking at the world. It requires repentance: to see God, yourself, and the world differently.

The goal of the book of James is nothing less than our full spiritual maturity as Jesus’ disciples

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is not just a good set of morals that you can try to live by. It’s impossible because the Kingdom of God cannot be entered into by man’s efforts.

Here are some of the ways that James refers to his brother, Jesus’ teaching in the book of James:

References to the Sermon on the Mount in the Book Of James

Book of JamesSermon on the MountThemes
James 1:2Matthew 5:10-12Blessing in facing trials
James 1:4Matthew 5:48The goal of the Gospel: be perfect, complete
James 1:6Matthew 7:7Asking in faith
James 1:20Matthew 5:22The limits of man’s anger
James 1:22Matthew 7:24-27Doing the word of God
James 3:18Matthew 5:9Pursuing peace
James 5:2Matthew 6:19Moth and rust of earthly riches
James 5:3Matthew 6:21Storing up treasures reveals the heart
James 5:10Matthew 5:12Example of prophets’ suffering
James 5:12Matthew 5:34Not taking oaths

The goal of both the book of James and the Sermon on the Mount is the same: to be perfect and complete as the Father in heaven is perfect. 

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48 (ESV)

And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:4 (ESV)

To be perfect doesn’t mean that you never sin (1 John 1:8-10). It means that you will be complete in Christ. The goal is not to become spiritual child, but to be fully mature in Christ.

The call of the Gospel is so much higher and the grace of God so much greater than we can ever imagine. The good news is not only that you can go to heaven when you die if you believe in Jesus. The Good News gets even better.

The Gospel is an invitation into a life in God that is impossible by man’s efforts or works. But God gives us His grace. Grace is not an excuse to live however you want. Grace is the empowerment on your heart to live out the Good News that Jesus preached. It’s a glorious Gospel.

James describes God’s vision for your life: to go from drifting and being tossed to and fro by the wind and the waves to receiving God’s true wisdom. This is God’s vision for your life and it will bring you into the fullness of Christ.

James is a call to perfection, or completeness, in Christ. It’s a call to action, to obedience to Christ out of love and to patient endurance unto fruitfulness.

The Gospel is sometimes understood in its very limited sense of believing in Jesus so your sins can be forgiven and you can go to heaven. The Gospel is much more than that.

The Gospel is not trying harder to live for Christ. It’s nothing less than a new spiritual birth (John 3:3) until you are transformed into the image of Christ. It can never be entered in through trying to live a better life in your own strength. This can only be received through repentance and faith in Christ. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ results in a righteousness that is way beyond the surface of what is often understand as religion. It’s a true relationship with the living God.
Following Christ is not trying to improve your life or to try to live by a set of moral standards. The Christian life is to count your life as crucified with Christ. It’s to live in the newness of life of who Jesus is.

The deep things of God are not complex philosophies, doctrines or spiritual experiences but simple acts of obedience to God out of love.

James doesn’t allow for a Christianity that is lukewarm. It brings a much needed balance and understanding to the Gospel.

The Benefits of Studying the Book of James in the Bible

  1. The Book of James explains how people get stuck in life and how to move on to spiritual maturity.
  2. James provides pieces that are vital to the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
  3. James protects us from becoming content with a fruitless form of godliness.

The key verses in James are James 1:21b-22. These 2 verses summarize the entire teaching of James.

Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

James 1:21b-22 (ESV)

James explains, as Jesus did, that the seed is the Word of God (Luke 8:11). The commands of Christ need to be received with meekness. This means that the Word of God needs to be received as God’s Word and joyful obedience will be the result.

The book of James is not a random collection of wisdom sayings in the New Testament. Sometimes James is compared to the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament. There are several themes and topics that James focuses on and returns to throughout his epistle.

The 5 Major Themes of James:

  1. Understanding the place of trials in the Christian life.
  2. Having a proper view of wealth and riches
  3. Receiving God’s Word rightly in order to see fruit.
  4. Emphasizing importance of doing and obeying the word of God out of faith.
  5. Submitting the tongue, our speech, to God.

We’ll look at some of these themes in the summary of each chapter below. But first, let’s consider: Who is the author of the Book of James? Understanding who James is will give us insight into the letter that James wrote.

Who Wrote the Book of James?

There are several people named James in the Bible, so which James wrote the book of James?

In general, the early church affirmed that James, the brother of Jesus, wrote the book of James. This is affirmed in the writings of early church historians like Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews.

The letter of James is written by James, the half-brother of Jesus, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion (James 1:1). The Jewish people had been scattered throughout the region while living under the rule of the Roman empire. They had move beyond Jerusalem and Israel and James was writing to these Jewish followers of Jesus Christ.

James was one of 4 brothers born to Mary and Joseph (Matt 13:55): James, Joses, Simon, and Judas. They also had sisters . Although James’ name in Greek is actually the name Jacob, which has Hebrew roots, it came to be translated as James in English.

What’s fascinating about James and his brothers is that they did not believe in Jesus during His ministry. It seems like they even mocked Him as recorded in John 7:3-5. It wasn’t until after Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection that they came to believe in Him (Acts 1:14).

At first, James didn’t believe in Jesus’ claims to be the Christ. But after he saw the resurrected Lord, he was willing to lay down his life for His Lord.

To call his half-brother “Master” and “Lord,” James had to be fully convinced.

James does not identify Himself as Jesus’ brother in the book of James. This is one of the reasons that some modern scholars question whether it was actually James, the brother of Jesus, who wrote the book. James simply doesn’t boast that he is Jesus’ brother.

James refers to himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). James actually refers to Jesus Christ as “Lord” several times in the book (James 2:1; 5:7, 8).

If there was anyone who knew Jesus closely, it would have been his brothers. Yet, they came to believe that their brother was the Son of God and to refer to Him as the Lord. What happened? 1 Corinthians 15:7 mentions that Jesus appeared to James after His resurrection.

How did James and Jude come to believe to their half-brother as the Lord? 1 Corinthians 15:7 mentions that Jesus appeared to James after His resurrection.

Brothers might know things that even their mothers don’t. James would have seen Jesus’ life close-up. There would be no secrets. If there were any family secrets, hidden sins, he would have known it all. It was a great testimony for James to acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

At one point, Jesus’ family came to visit Him. Great crowds of people came around Him to be healed and to hear Him. Jesus explained that whoever does the will of God is His brother, sister, and mother.

James was not just a biological brother of Jesus but a spiritual brother, one who does the will of God.

James became one who was willing to lay down his life for His Lord and to obey the will of God.

James simply introduces himself as James in the letter, without any other introduction. He must have been well known and expected the readers of his letter to know who he was. James writes with authority and wisdom. He doesn’t explain his credentials and assumes that the readers would know who it is.

James was one of the pillars of the church in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:9; 1:19) so he probably only needed to refer to himself simply as James.

Jude, who is one of James’ brothers, also doesn’t refer to Jesus directly as his brother. Jude, who wrote the New Testament book of Jude, refers to himself in Jude 1:1 as “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James.” Then in Jude 1:4, 17, and 21, he refers to their brother as the Lord Jesus Christ.

According to Josephus, the historian, James was martyred for his faith in AD 62. James didn’t die out of family loyalty to his older brother, Jesus. Rather, James laid down his life in allegiance to His Lord, Jesus Christ.
James was often referred to as James the Just and some historians consider him to be a Nazarite. That mean he would have taken a vow of devotion and didn’t eat meat,cut his hair, nor drink wine. Such was his devotion to his Lord, Jesus Christ.

Book of James Summary

What is the main message of James? The book of James is an exhortation to live out Jesus’ message of the Gospel of the Kingdom. James shows what it looks like to live out the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

James references the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) many times, so without understanding this connection, the teaching of James can be misunderstood and misapplied. (See the table in the introduction section of this article) Some people throughout history have even doubted the usefulness of James in the Bible because this connection was not fully understood.

To apply the book of James is to respond to Jesus’ message of the Gospel. The response that Jesus is looking for is repentance and faith. In Matthew’s Gospel, repent is the first word that Jesus speaks in His public ministry.

From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Matt. 4:17 (ESV)

The primary word for repent in the New Testament means “to think differently afterwards.” To repent means to change your mind about God, yourself, and the world around you. To repent is to reconsider, to come to a new way of thinking, see from a new perspective. 

To repent is not just feeling sorry for your sin. Repentance makes you see everything differently, and that includes how you view your sin.

To repent is to change your mind about how you think about God, the world, and yourself.

There is a distinctly Kingdom perspective on life that Jesus brings. It’s a distinctly heavenly wisdom that Jesus declares.

In the Beatitudes, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3-12),  Jesus presents a view of the world that is radically different from the way people see the world. Jesus presents heaven’s perspective and He calls people to change their mind – to see from this new perspective, and to receive the Good News of this Kingdom coming to earth through the King, Jesus.

Jesus calls people to Himself as one who came from the Father.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.

John 14:6

The book of James applies this perspective. It’s a life that responds to the Gospel of the Kingdom. 

Let’s now look at how James applies this to several major things in our lives: our speech, how to live in God’s wisdom, how to think about wealth and money.  These themes are related and overlap. The book of James deals with these from different perspectives and brings these topics up at them at different points in the book.

The Book of James

Summary of James Chapter 1

The main point of James chapter 1 is to introduce the major themes that will be explained in more detail in the rest of the letter of James: A perspective on trials in life (James 1:2-8; 12-18), a view of wealth (vs. 9-11), receiving God’s Word (vs. 21), obeying out of faith (vs. 22-25), controlling the tongue (vs. 19-20, 26).

The main theme of the book of James is receiving wisdom from God’s Word. Wisdom from God results in a life bears fruit. 

Wisdom from God’s Word that affects every area of life and results in a life the is fruitful and thrives even in the face of trials.

James echoes what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount:

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matt. 5:48 (ESV)

James explains how you can live with great joy in being transformed into the image of Christ.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:2-4 (ESV)

The goal of the Christian life is that you would be complete, and to be transformed into the image of Christ. The goal is that you would be perfect, whole, not lacking anything, and fully mature in Christ. This will take full surrender and receiving God’s Word with meekness.

Much of our energy in life is spent trying to avoid testing trial and temptation. James sees this from a completely different perspective. James is an invitation into the life of Christ in all things. 

The view on life that James presents is very different from religion in the way most people think about it.

Christianity is not trying to get God to bless you, like you, or accept you. It’s an invitation to live a radically different life as citizens in God’s Kingdom because you have already been blessed in Christ. You can endure anything, even death with the hope of God’s Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed.

This requires repentance and faith, and seeing God, the world, and yourself differently.

James 1:27 explains that there is pure and undefiled religion that goes way beyond the surface of what is often understood as religion. It’s acknowledging that anything mankind does cannot measure up to God’s standards. It requires surrendering fully to Jesus Christ. As the Word of God is received with meekness, it will result in pure works that care for people in the world.

Religion only makes sense if it is a life that is responding to the Word of God bearing fruit in one’s life. All the major religions in the world require people to live a better life. The Bible calls people to live out of something much deeper.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ results in a righteousness that is way beyond the surface of what is often understand as religion. It’s a true relationship with the living God that results in a transformed life from the inside out.

James is a book that helps when you’re stuck in life. James shows you how you got there and how to get out. Rather than looking for shortcuts when you experience trials in life, James goes to the root of experiencing God’s life-transforming power.

James 1:1-14-15 explains that sin will mature if we don’t bring it to the cross. It starts with being enticed by desire, then desire is conceived, sin is birthed, and when sin is fully growth, death results.

James protects us from a fruitless form of godliness. It calls us to simple obedience to Christ, to be wholly surrender to Him, not being double minded.

Summary of James Chapter 2

The main theme of James 2 is that showing partiality is sin and that faith must be accompanied by works.

James 2 Explains that Partiality is Sin

Favoritism in the Bible is showing partiality or judging people by outward appearances. You are not to judge people by their wealth, influence, social standing, eloquence, education, gender, age, or popularity.

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 

James 2:1 (ESV)

Showing partiality is a sin in light of the glory of the Lord Jesus (James. 2:9). When you treat people differently based on outward appearances, it is sin.

God does not show partiality (Romans 2:11). God does not judge by the surface. To judge is to make distinction and have discernment. God looks at the heart and the obedience that flows out of faith and love. That’s why God choose David, the  shepherd boy, to be king over Israel (1 Samuel 13:14).

We are to see people through God’s eyes. This does not mean to excuse sin or to accept violence, wickedness, or evil. We are to relate rightly and judge with righteous judgment (John 7:24). 

It takes God to open our eyes to see the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints (Eph. 1:18).

When we try to achieve justice in this world apart from God, it results in a judgemental and sometimes hateful spirit. Without God, human attempts do not achieve His righteousness. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can bring true answers to the root cause of sin in the heart of mankind that leads to partiality.

Many of the problems we face in modern life are the same old things, maybe with new names and labels. The Gospel of Jesus Christ alone answers the issues of the heart at the core.

James 2 Explains that Faith Without Works is Dead

James 2 revisits the theme that was introduced in James 1:22.

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

James 1:22 (ESV)

James explains that faith without works is useless, or dead.

So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

James 2:17 (ESV)

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?

James 2:19-20 (ESV)

If the seed of the Word of God is planted in your hearts, it will bear fruit if you have received it with meekness. True faith will always result in fruit.

James is a call to be doers of the Word and not just hearers only. Jesus describes this important connection of the Word of God and obedience in John 15:2.

Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.

(John 15:21 ESV)

When you encounter God’s love, you will love Him back and obey Jesus.

The book of James in the Bible explains the kind of life that will survive and thrive in the storms that are coming on the horizon. 

The Sermon on the Mount ends with Jesus’ exhortation to not just hear but do the Word of God (Matt. 7:24-27). It’s the true wisdom of God and fruitfulness that will result in a life that stands in the face of the storms that are ahead. James emphasis the same in the book of James.

The Book of James highlights things that are easily missed from the understanding of the Gospel of the Kingdom. These are vital pieces without which we have an incomplete Gospel. James highlights this Spirit of Wisdom when he calls attention to the need to be doers of the Word and not just hearers only.

The Gospel of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed is the only foundation upon which the Church can be built into the fullness of Christ. It’s the only message that will empower our hearts with true hope to endure until the end. It’s the call of Jesus for His church to arise to the fullness of Christ.

You can’t know God in a vacuum. It has to be lived out in your everyday life.

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.

1 John 4:20 (ESV)

The letter of James provides an important perspective on the Christian life. It presents several parts that are vital to the full understanding of Gospel of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed.

Summary of James Chapter 3

The main them in James 3 is the importance of the tongue, our speech, and receiving wisdom from heaven.

For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 

James 3:2 (ESV)

James 3 is an expansion of the theme of our speech, that was introduced earlier in James 1.

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

James 1:19-21 (ESV)

Words or speech express what is in the heart. James echoes what Jesus taught in Matthew 15:18-20. Words that flow from a heart ruled by the flesh reveal anger and things that do not express or result in the righteousness of God.

When God’s Word is implanted in the heart, it transforms the heart and in turn, the words that flow from it.

God’s implanted Word affects your words.

What do your words say about you?

It can be helpful to ask:

  • Will I receive the implanted Word with meekness and allow it to bring death to my old self and bring resurrection life to the new man created to be the first-fruits of God’s creation? 
  • Will I open to the God of light and love to fill my heart and empower my words to cleanse, encourage, heal, and bring hope? 
  • Will I allow my tongue to be set ablaze with the fire of God to be filled with praise, to proclaim the wonders of God in my life and to those around me?
  • Do I speak too little? Why do I not speak up when needed? Do I hold back from saying things that need to be said because I’m afraid of what people will say or because I’m uncomfortable with conflict? Or do I speak too much? Am I slow to listen and quick to speak?
  • Do I argue for arguments sake? Do I start or participate in gossip? Do I lie when it’s convenient? Is it my usual pattern to complain and speak with negativity? Is there boasting in my heart? Do I always have to have the right answers or the last word?
  • Do I casually speak ill of others in the name of “discernment?” Why do I say things that way, with that tone of voice?

James 3 also contrasts worldly wisdom and the wisdom that comes from heaven. Wisdom from God is expressed in your lifestyle and through “works in the meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13).

Wisdom from heaven is not man’s wisdom. It’s based on resting in God and expresses itself in meekness of a heart fully submitted to Him.

Summary of James Chapter 4

James 4 explains why people fight and quarrel.

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

James 4:1-3

Fights and quarrels come from desires for pleasure, or passions, that are at war within the heart. Rage in the heart from passions result in war and conflict in relationships. This can be applied to every level of relationships where 2 or more people are involved: families, friends, churches, nations.

Lust and passions in the heart manifests as fights and quarrels. These things come to be expressed in lust, murder, and wanting what others have.

James 4, in verses 11-12, also revisits the topic of the tongue, or speech. This time, particularly the aspect of judging others, which is related to the previous topic of the reason for  fights and quarrels.

James 4 ends in verses 13-17 with a warning about the evil nature of boasting in arrogance. Boasting in arrogance is evil compared to receiving God’s Word in meekness and allowing it to transform your heart and in turn, your words and actions.

Summary of James Chapter 5

James 5 gives a warning against rich oppressors. It’s a development on the themes of riches and money that were touched on earlier in the Book of James.

James gives a sobering call to the rich who have stored up treasure while oppressing others (James 5:3). James echoes Jesus’ teaching that where you store your treasure reveals the condition of your heart.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matt. 6:21 (ESV)

James 5:7-11 gives a call to patient endurance until the coming of the Lord. The Word of God will bear fruit that will endure. The Kingdom of God operates as a seed, the Word, that will bear fruit with patient endurance. In light of the hope of Jesus’ Second Coming, you can live with confidence and joy regardless of whatever you face in this life.

James 5:13-20 gives a call to the prayer of faith. Prayer involves confessing of sin to one another. The prayer of faith leads to healing and the heavens being opened as in the example of Elijah.

James ends with an exhortation to stay true to God’s wisdom and to restore others who have wandered from it. God’s power is available to save and to overcome sin.

James and Spiritual Warfare

As with all Scripture, the book of James must be approached in full dependence on the Holy Spirit and in view of the full counsels of God, the teaching of all of the Bible. It is a vital book to understanding the Gospel that Jesus preached.

There is tension and spiritual warfare around the book of James. It confronts the enemy’s last stronghold against the Kingdom of God. Many people will have passion, knowledge, spiritual experiences and power. The Enemy will even allow all of these if it will end without simple obedience to Christ. But when a disciple of Jesus begins to obey Christ out of love, the Gospel of the Kingdom advances – one heart at a time. This causes spiritual conflict.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 

James 4:7 (ESV)

We’re all building something with our lives. Will it endure through the storms of this life? Will it endure at the end of the age, when you stand before Jesus, the King and Judge? Will you bear fruit that God is looking for?

My prayer for you is that you would experience the blessing of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God as expressed in the book of James: May the seed of the Word of God, planted in the soil of a heart fully yielded to God, produces a supernatural harvest of fruitfulness to His glory!

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If you found this Bible Study on the Book of James to be helpful, here are a few others that I’d recommend:

Summary of Ephesians: Meaning, Outline & Application. The book of Ephesians gives another important perspective on the Gospel of the Kingdom. It shows how the raw power of the Gospel transforms individuals and regions as the church comes to the fullness of Christ.

11 Ways to Study the Bible: Methods, Techniques & Tips. In this article, I share different methods of Bible Study, including how to study a book of the Bible. My studies in James combined a few of the methods in the article. Try some of the different methods and see which one works the best for you.

One resource that I highly recommend is: Unlocking the Bible: A Unique Overview of the Whole Bible (You can check out the reviews on this link to Amazon). It has a chapter on every book of the Bible, is very clear, and has great insights. Be sure to get the book and not the one that has just diagrams, charts, and images. The covers look very similar.

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

David Kim

I'm David Kim and the Bible has been a passionate pursuit of mine for many years. This is a site where I get to share with you some of the things that I’ve been learning. I’m a husband, a father, pastor of a church in Northern California, and a life-long student of the Scriptures.

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