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Preaching on James

An overview of the historical background and theology of James to help you develop your sermon series and apply it to your hearers.
Preaching on James
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Historical Background

According to most scholars, Jesus’ half-brother, James, wrote the letter that bears his name. During Jesus’ ministry, James practically disowned Jesus (Mark 3:21) and definitely did not believe he was the Messiah (John 7:5). However, all of that changed after he saw Jesus resurrected. James went from a staunch cynic to an avid advocate and eventually became the leader of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.

Unbeknownst to James, persecution was just around the corner. In Acts 7, the Sanhedrin’s temper reaches a boiling point and they murdered a Jesus follower named, Stephen. They then turned their aggression towards other members of the Jerusalem church. As a result, all except the Apostles fled throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1). In order to comfort and encourage his flock, James writes a letter to all of those scatted around the region.

His letter draws from Jesus’ teachings about life and the kingdom of God, primarily from the Sermon on the Mount. James also connects his letter to the Book of Proverbs, specifically Proverbs 1-9. He hopes that his short pieces of wisdom scattered throughout his letter can lift people from their misery and teach them how to live out a life that is devoted to the resurrected Jesus.

Sermon Series

Title: Faith in Every Season OR Faith in Action

Big Idea for Series: Faith is more than something you believe, it is something you do.

Preaching Plan
  • The Life of Faith (1:1-27)
    • Trials of Many Kinds (1:1-18)
    • Putting Your Faith to Work (1:19-27)
  • The Features of Faith (2:1-5:6)
    • Faith Features Fairness (2:1-13)
    • Faith Features Our Works (2:14-26)
    • Faith Features Our Words (3:1-12)
    • Faith Features Wisdom (3:13-18)
    • Faith Features Discernment (4:1-12)
    • Faith Features a Proper Perspective of Wealth – Part 1 (4:13-17)
    • Faith Features a Proper Perspective of Wealth – Part 2 (5:1-6)
  • The Perseverance of Faith (5:7-20)
    • Patience in the Midst of Waiting (5:7-12)
    • The Power of Prayer (5:13-18)
    • Restoring Others (5:19-20)
Part 1: The Life of Faith (James 1:1-27)
Text: James 1:1-18
  • Title: Trials of Many Kinds
  • Big Idea: Trials are our teacher not our tempter.
  • Sermon Focus: So often trials are looked at as something negative. The world tells us to avoid trials and our flesh tells us to whine through trials. Often times we are tempted to believe that trials are evidence that God is punishing us. However, James tells us to be joyful in the midst of trials because they have a purpose. Trials are meant to teach us, not tempt us. They grow our trust in God and strengthen our relationship with him. Throughout the book, James shares his wisdom on what to do when faced with trials. Specifically trials of works, words, wisdom, and wealth. This opening sermon can set the stage and tone for the entire series.
Text: James 1:19-27
  • Title: Putting Your Faith to Work
  • Big Idea: Closed ears and rambling tongues lead to a worthless religion.
  • Sermon Focus: In these verses, James points out what one’s faith ought to look like. He starts by emphasizing one’s ability to have a listening-first disposition. Then, he ups the ante and challenges his readers to put what has been heard into practice. Ultimately, this leads to speaking the truth in love, serving the poor, and being whole-heartedly devoted to God. The New Covenant that Jesus gave his disciples after washing their dirty feet is seen throughout James’ writings and ought to be seen throughout our lives. How do our sealed ears and rambling mouths hinder our witness and work in this world?
Part 2: The Features of Faith (James 2:1-5:6)
Text: James 2:1-13
  • Title: Faith Features Fairness
  • Big Idea: God cares about justification for all and justice for all. / Mercy triumphs over judgment!
  • Sermon Focus: James says that we tend to show favoritism towards those who can benefit us while disregarding those who cannot. Preference and prejudice can easily and unexpectedly creep into our lives. Admit, it is tempting to favor some people over other people. But James echoes his Savior’s words to love your neighbor as yourself by featuring fairness (see Matt. 5:46-48). Everyone was created by and is loved by God, and this is something we so often forget when looking at people that are different from us. Our focus should not be on getting ahead of others, but instead, our focus ought to be on loving others. How has favoritism crept into believers lives today and how can we make sure our faith features fairness?
Text: James 2:14-26
  • Title: Faith Features Our Works
  • Big Idea: Faith without deeds is dead. / Don’t let your faith just stand there, do something.
  • Sermon Focus: James goes on to describe how to recognize what genuine faith does and does not look like. He uses modern day examples, as well as historical examples, to prove his point which is this: True genuine faith results in changed lives. This means that if we are truly following God, we will be stirred with a desire to serve others (see also Matt. 7:21-27). True faith is shown by our deeds.
Text: James 3:1-12
  • Title: Faith Features Our Words
  • Big Idea: Tackle your tongue before your tongue tackles you. / Only you can prevent a forest fire of words!
  • Sermon Focus: Grappling is a term used in wrestling in which one attempts to take down their opponent and put them into a submission hold. James emphasizes a similar idea when talking about the power of our words. He insists we need to tackle our tongue into submission because if we let the tongue loose, it is a dangerous opponent that will grow increasingly difficult to control. James uses the vivid imagery of a forest fire and a ship’s rudder as he talks about controlling the tongue. It is easier to control the tongue then trying to reign in our words after it is too late. True faith features our words.
Text: James 3:13-18
  • Title: Faith Features Wisdom
  • Big Idea: Wisdom from below or wisdom from above. / Be wise in what you say and do.
  • Sermon Focus: James begins this portion of his letter with a proactive question, “Who is wise among you?” When first hearing this, one’s hand would think to immediately shoot up into the air. But before everyone starts to raise his or her hand and expect a pat on the back, James wants to make a distinction between earthly wisdom and heavily wisdom, false wisdom and true wisdom. Wisdom that comes from the evil one features envy and selfish ambition. Instead, true wisdom that comes from above is impartial, sincere, and peaceful. What does true wisdom look like in a world full of false wisdom?
Text: James 4:1-12
  • Title: Faith Features Discernment
  • Big Idea: Quarrels among you are due to the battles within you. / Humble submission to the will of God enables admission into the presence of God.
  • Sermon Focus: Much like water and oil, heaven and earth do not mix. James mentions this throughout his letter, but in 4:1-12 he spells it out for his readers. He broadcasts the distinctions of the things of earth and the things of God and advises his readers to use discernment when choosing between the two. This discernment comes from deep self-reflection of one’s desires (Matt. 6:21). Examining one’s life and cravings can aid in clearly identifying what we need to submit to God.
Text: James 4:13-17
  • Title: Faith Features a Proper Perspective of Wealth (Part 1)
  • Big Idea: Pursue God, not things. / Make your life more than just dust in the wind.
  • Sermon Focus: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (4:14). James cannot be any more straightforward on the brevity of life. He says one ought to plan and live their life with the understanding that life is short. Since life is brief, make it count! James wants his readers to have a faith that features a proper perspective on life, work, and wealth. Therefore, we should not boast in ourselves but embrace the Lord’s presence, desire, and will in our short, medium, and earthly-long term plans. This will enable us to do things that we know are the right things to do. Perhaps encourage your listeners to rethink and reprioritize what they value, then ask them check-in to see how they are doing with their closest friends and relatives.
Text: James 5:1-6
  • Title: Faith Features a Proper Perspective of Wealth (Part 2)
  • Big Idea: Your wealth will one day rot, just like you. / Do you have wealth, or does wealth have you?
  • Sermon Focus: James continues to draw the contrast between wealth in God’s economy and the world. It is easy to forget that our earthly possessions fade away. If we are thinking with an eternal perspective then we will quickly realize that there is more to this life than this life. Wealth is not evil, but if it controls your life, and you do not use it help others (James 1:27) then James communicates that misery is just around the corner. Dependency should be on God and not on possessions.
Part 3: The Perseverance of Faith (James 5:7-20)
Text: James 5:7-12
  • Title: Patience in the Midst of Waiting
  • Big Idea: Patience comes one day at a time and one moment at a time.
  • Sermon Focus: In contrast to being consumed by wealth, James says Jesus followers are to live with patience and perseverance. He opens his letter addressing the issue of suffering and revisits this theme here. This time, along with being joyful, he adds being patient. However, patience is not always easy, especially in our fast-paced and hectic world. How can people build margins in their lives so they can overcome worry and stress through patience?
Text: James 5:13-18
  • Title: The Power of Prayer
  • Big Idea: Praying people find great power.
  • Sermon Focus: Billy Graham admits, “The Christian life is not a constant high. I have my moments of deep discouragement. I have to go to God in prayer with tears in my eyes, and say, 'O God, forgive me,' or 'Help me.'" Graham is echoing the sentiments that James talks about in this section. We need to remind people that the effective prayer of a righteous person has tremendous power. Taking time to pray for the big things and little things in our lives orients us to the Father’s will and the Spirit’s ways.
Text: James 5:19-20
  • Title: Restoring Others
  • Big Idea: Faith confronts the wandering believer.
  • Sermon Focus: James ends with a call to live out the truth of the gospel by telling those around us about the restorative hope that is found in Jesus Christ. Throughout his letter, James explains what it means to have real, authentic faith. A faith that is lived out by making a difference in other people’s lives.


James calls his readers to have a true, active faith in this extremely applicable book. This enables the preacher to call Christians to make their faith the central focus of their lives. James spends significant time talking about such matters as:

  • Being hearers and doers of the Word;
  • Trials and temptations;
  • The power of the tongue;
  • Wealth;
  • Patience.

James paints many pictures and uses several examples throughout his letter to communicate how and why his readers ought to put their faith into action. When applying this book, perhaps you could also use many modern day illustrations or examples that your listeners could relate to.

For instance, when James illustrates the power of the tongue through an example of a small spark or a rudder of a ship, perhaps explain how our smart phones or tablets are small but extremely powerful. When James talks about how our lives are like a vapor, perhaps use an aerosol can or a humidifier to demonstrate the brevity of life. Applying the principles in the Book of James needs to be clear, relevant, memorable, and timely, just like they were for his original readers.

Theological Themes

James is ministering to a group of people in crisis. Unlike many of Paul’s epistles, James does not address as many theological issues, but rather leans more towards applying one’s theology. Therefore, he mainly addresses the theological issue of idle faith. He wants his listeners to know that they should live out their faith. He calls believers to live out their faith in every aspect and season of life. Here are a few theological themes surrounding the idea of idle faith that the Book of James develops:

Trials and Temptations

James knew what it meant to face hardships. He witnessed them up front with his friends and family. Nonetheless, we see from his letter to those scattered abroad, that James believed trials and temptations produced endurance and spiritual maturity (1:1:2-15). This theme weaves its way throughout the entire letter.

Money and Wealth

James, like his half-brother Jesus, spends significant time talking about the arrogance and danger wealth can bring upon people (4:13-14; 5:1-6). James beautifully dismantles the idea of worldly possessions and points his readers to something much more significant, the hope of Jesus’ return (5:7-11).


James concludes his letter by talking about faith-filler prayer (5:13-16). He discusses issues of confession, prayer for the sick, and the power of prayer.

Words and Actions

James speaks at length about this issue, however he exhorts his readers to draw people to Christ through caring for other people (1:26-27; 2:5-11; 2:18-19; 3:18; 4:1-3) and through right living (1:2-8; 3:1-12; 4:7-17; 5:7-12).

My Encounter with James

The Book of James reminded me that the Christian life, and ministry, is hard. Nonetheless, James taught me that trials could be used as gifts from God, giving me opportunities to grow in my faith and glorify God. I was reminded that the goal of pastoral ministry is to help one’s congregation mature spiritually. This book continues to challenge me to integrate the teachings of Jesus into my everyday life. Through preaching this book, I hope I can encourage my listeners to do the same while on their discipleship journey.


Dan G. McCartney, James (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009).

McCartney highlights the history of the letter and details the author and recipients. If you want to do research on the background of James this is a great place to start.

Douglas J. Moo, James: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015).

Moo has his commentary set up a little different from normal. It reads a more like a book than a commentary, but he offers some great insights. Moo is a great resource for understanding the structure and style of James.

K.A. Richardson, James (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997).

This is part of the New American Commentary series. Richardson has a nice overview of the background of the letter and unpacks key exegetical findings well. If you can only look at one commentary, this is a good one to have on your shelf.

Chris Rappazini serves as the Biblical Exposition Program Head at the Moody Bible Institute in Spokane, WA, is an associate teaching pastor at Southside Christian Church, and is on the Board of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.

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