The book of James and the deity of Christ

The book of James is not where most people turn to for a discussion of Christology. James certainly did not write his epistle to teach on the subject of Christ’s deity, whereas other passages like the first chapter of Hebrews or the prologue of John were obviously written for that express purpose and lay the issue out clearly and beautifully. There are passages like Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1 that plainly call Jesus our “God and Savior.” There are prophecies like Isaiah 9:6 that declare the Messiah to come would be the “mighty God.” The Scriptures are indeed quite full of clear and unequivocal claims of the full deity of Christ, and when the Christian approaches the book of James to read his instructions on Christian living in the midst of great suffering, they certainly don’t need him to restate this plain biblical teaching. Yet it can be helpful and instructive to see that literally all of the New Testament writers not only certainly believed this wondrous truth, but in fact wrote in such a way that this common faith they held with their believing audience is made plain and demonstrable through what they wrote, and the one little letter that James left us is no exception.

James begins his letter by describing himself as a “slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” In chapter 2 verse 1, he speaks of Jesus Christ not only as Lord, but as “our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (KJV, ESV) or as “Our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” (NASB, HSCB, NIV). This is already rather exalted language. No one else in all of Scripture is referred to as the “Lord of Glory” but Jesus, and whenever the “Glory of the Lord” is elsewhere spoken of, the “Lord” is always God. One cannot imagine even the great king David or the great prophet Moses or even unfallen Adam in Eden with dominion over all the earth being called “the Lord of Glory.” Even by itself, this terminology should at least be enough to give one serious pause for consideration. The main thing here, however, is simply to recognize that to James, Jesus is the Lord, and in a very central and meaningful way. This is important context to have in mind as we look at our key passage in James chapter 5, picking up in verses 7-9:

“Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.”

Note here that these Christians are being urged to endure their trials and suffering now in eager anticipation of the “coming of the Lord” and are told again immediately afterward, “the coming of the Lord is near.” James does not exclusively use the word “Lord” for Jesus only. God the Father is referred to as Lord in James 3:91 and it is used several other times generally for God in a manner that would be assuming our conclusion up front to say were definitely references to Jesus. However, in this context of the imminent and anticipated coming of the Lord in which the believer is to await in hope, the subject here is plainly the Lord Jesus of whom James referred to previously. It is Jesus who is coming again, Jesus whose coming we are to be expecting, and it is Jesus' coming in which we place our hope. So in this context, “The Lord” mentioned here is “The Lord Jesus Christ.” This claim, so far, is uncontroversial and by itself proves nothing, but it is important to note before reading on that the Lord in this context is Jesus. Now let us continue through verses 10-11 keeping that in mind:

 “As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful”

The prophets suffered in the name of the Lord. The Lord’s dealings with Job demonstrate the Lord’s compassion. But for who’s name did the Prophets suffer? Who had dealings with Job? Yahweh did. Jehovah did. The one true God did. But the context here has not changed. This is the same argument for the people of God to endure their trials in patience, awaiting the Lord’s coming. Same context, same use of the word Lord.2 Who is the Lord? The Lord is Jesus. This same Lord is the one true God in whom Job and the prophets hoped in their sufferings. Jesus is the Lord, the one true God. James simply assumes it to be so, and so does his audience, and so the flow of the argument made sense to both. Just as the prophets suffered in the name of the Lord, so you suffer in the name of the Lord. Just as Job received a reward from the Lord after his suffering, so you too will receive your reward from the Lord Jesus after your suffering, at His coming.

In fact, the very next verse is James quoting Jesus directly, “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.” We see this in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5:34-37. This quotation seems to point us even more to the fact that James has Jesus here in mind. It also points us to Jesus own words earlier in the same sermon. In Matthew 5:11, Jesus says to His disciples:

“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Notice here that Jesus Himself makes the same point that James does. Jesus explains that when His disciples suffer because of Him, they are doing the same thing the prophets did before them. But for whom did the prophets suffer? They suffered for the Lord. One and the same Lord as He for whom the disciples would be suffering. Jesus is the Lord, the one true God for whom the prophets suffered. Jesus Himself claimed it. James and his readers knew it and trusted in that reality, and so must we today! This, I hope, is clear already in what we have seen so far, but there is still one more point to briefly note. In James 4:11-12 we read:

“Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?”

 We likewise see in James 5:9, from our main passage:

 “Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.”

The reference to the judge standing right at the door is clearly echoing the repeated statements immediately before it about the coming of the Lord is verses 7-8. The judge at the door is the coming Lord Jesus. Once again, this shows us something very important. James just got done writing in 4:11-12 about our speaking against one another and warns that there is but one lawgiver and judge. Then the coming Lord Jesus, in almost exactly the same warning in 5:9, is described as the judge at the door. There is only one lawgiver and judge, and that one is Jesus. Who gave the law? God did. Who is Jesus? Well, I think that is becoming pretty clear at this point.

Yet as we look back at the sermon on the mount, we see this paralleled yet again. Matthew 7:1-5 warns:

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

This is much like the warnings in James. Jesus goes on in Matthew 7:21-23 to picture Himself as the judge to whom people will be pleading on the last day to enter the kingdom, and who will have the authority to cast out those whom He never knew. Furthermore, throughout Matthew 5, Jesus issues commands on the very law of God, not by saying “thus saith the Lord,” or “it is written,” but rather, “you have heard it said, but I SAY!” James seems to be relying on Jesus own self-understanding of being both lawgiver and judge. James knew that there was only one lawgiver and judge, and that is God. James also knew that Jesus is lawgiver and judge. James knew and believed that Jesus is the one true God, and wrote to his audience on that basis.

  • 1. In most modern translations this verse speaks of “our Lord and Father,” and therefore seems to refer to God the Father as “Lord” here. There is a textual variant in the Greek, however, where some manuscripts read “God and Father” rather than “Lord”. This is the reading in the KJV, NKJV, and older translations like the Geneva Bible. The reading of “God and Father” is found in the majority of late Greek and Latin manuscripts an in a few ancient Coptic translations, but is not found in the early Greek manuscript tradition. Since “God and father” would be the more common and familiar phrase, it is easier to imagine a scribe accidentally writing “God and father” instead of “Lord and Father” simply out of habit. Additionally, the reading "Lord and Father" makes the case of this article slightly harder to make, as it shows James willing to call the Father "Lord" as well as the Son, and therefore forces one to pay closer attention to the context to determine who "the Lord" is in any given passage. For these reasons, we will assume in this article that "Lord and Father" is the original reading.
  • 2. The New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses translates the word “Lord” as the personal name “Jehovah” in every place that it is clearly referring to God. While this can obscure passages that otherwise clearly show the deity of Christ, in this context it also serves us as a tacit concession of the point. In verses 7-8 they leave the rendering as “Lord”, thus admitting that here the context clearly demands that Jesus is in view as the “Lord” rather than God the Father. They then switch to “Jehovah” in verses 10-11, even though the underlying Greek word is exactly the same and there is nothing in the context that would lead one to conclude that we have suddenly switched to a completely different “Lord”. While this translation tactic makes it much harder to use this passage evangelistically to active Jehovah’s Witnesses, their sleight of hand to conceal the consistent reading of this passage further demonstrates to us that there is, indeed, something here they need to conceal.