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Lesson Plan on James



The Epistle of James is known as the "most socially conscious writing in the New Testament." (1) We don't really get any doctrinal exposition in it like we did in Hebrews and some of the writings of Paul. The Epistle of James holds a lot of pearls of wisdom on how Christians should live their life. In other words, this epistle holds a lot of gospel principles and applications for the everyday life of a disciple of Christ. 

The book's general audience is "the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad" (see James 1:1). Therefore, this epistle is not written to a specific Church or area like the Pauline epistles, but it was written for general membership. In addition, this epistle quotes the Sermon on the Mount at least 15 times and heavily formats its work like the wisdom literature of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in The Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament). The chart below is just a quick glimpse of the heavy influence the Sermon on the Mount has in the epistle. It is even more interesting to note that this epistle was most likely written before the Gospel of Matthew. In other words, chronologically speaking, we get the words of that sermon from James before any of the Gospels record it. 

N.T. Wright's The New Testament In Its World, p. 742

This all allows scholars to piece together a little more of the context of this short book. It appears to be more focused on helping the Jewish Christians, not necessarily the Gentile converts, to "sift through differing interpretations of what it means to be a Christian" (see Wayment Translation, p. 420). What does that mean? There was this constant tug and pull between how Gentiles should live the gospel and how Jewish converts should live the gospel. The early Church leaders took great care in helping all see the centrality of Jesus Christ but also sought to not overwhelm Gentiles with Torah observance and not to have Jewish converts throw the baby out with the bath water by neglecting the many wonderful moral teachings found within their Jewish roots (see The New Testament In Its World, p. 736). It is because of this we get the popular verses in our tradition found within James that "faith without works is dead." James is reaching out to a different audience, mostly, than Paul is. The Gentiles needed to be taught a grace-filled gospel where their good works were motivated by that divine grace. Frankly, that grace is what they understood in their Gentile worldview of Emporers and Rulers (remember that grace had covenantal meaning in the ancient world that largely revolved around the covenantal relationship between ruling patrons and those they vowed to protect). The Jewish Christians already had a strong background in moral teaching that ought not to be discarded. It is worth pointing out that reformers simply did not understand this dynamic in the New Testament. For example, Martin Luther did not like the Epistle of James and called it a "right strawy epistle" because he did not enjoy its teachings about 'works'.  They, the reformers, saw it as contradictory without understanding that Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and their servants try their best to teach to the understanding of their children.

Some other additional notes are worth pointing out, namely, that James is not really the author's name. It is, more correctly speaking, Jacob. The name 'James' was, frankly, a weird translation done by Willliam Tyndale that just stuck. Also, this is not the 'James' we often associate with "Peter, James, and John." That James was one of the first Christian martyrs and died in 44 AD. The Jacob/James who wrote this epistle is the half-brother of Jesus and has a fascinating back story that I wish we knew more about. The fact that Jacob/James quotes the Sermon on the Mount so much might tell us how acquainted Mary & Joseph's household was with those teachings. In addition, the only backstory we do know about Jacob/James is that he was not a believer in the divine ministry and mission of his half-brother during the years of His mortal ministry. He actually thought it brought unnecessary persecution upon the family (see John 7:2-5; 19:25-27; Mark 3:21; 6:2-4,6). Many scholars point out that the inclusion of Jacob/James' doubt would have been embarrassing for the Gospel writers (Mark & John), but actually underscores the authenticity of conversion given the close family skepticism. What converts Jacob/James? Perhaps it was the resurrected appearance of Jesus to him (see 1 Corinthians 15:7)? That is the only other detail we get about Jacob/James in the New Testament before he becomes the Church leader in Jerusalem. It is interesting to contemplate that the household of Jesus' childhood apparently had some inner conflict and, eventually, it was the miracle of the resurrection that may have won over the skepticism of Jacob/James at that time. In short, Jacob/James' witness of Jesus can be a powerful witness to those of us who are skeptics.

James goes on to be a leader in the early Church and many believe that he was the original Bishop of Jerusalem. We have him showing up in the book of Acts as one of the leaders and voices in the Great Jerusalem Council. He is martyred for his witness of the Savior by being stoned to death by the Pharisees on order of High Priest Ananus ben Ananus. This martyrdom is traditionally believed to have happened in 62 A.D. only a couple of years after most scholars believe this epistle was written. Therefore, referring back to the possible context of this epistle, the Jewish Christians may be receiving increasing persecution from their Jewish brothers. This epistle was written to possibly have these Christians understand the profound influence of their Jewish heritage and, therefore, extend more olive branches to their Jewish brethren. "This would enable them to offer a powerful witness to their fellow Diaspora Jews." (Wright, p. 736). In other words, it would be evidence of Jesus being the fulfillment of the Torah, not the destroyer of it.

This epistle has an introductory chapter, and then the last 4 chapters expound on 12 different areas of moral teaching. That is an interesting format given that ancient Jacob had 12 sons. The picture below is a great visual outline of the epistle from this YouTube video.


Let's start with the beginning of James which includes verses that should be widely familiar in our religious tradition. Elder Bruce R. McConkie once boldly wrote about verse 5, saying:
“This single verse of scripture has had a greater impact and a more far reaching effect upon mankind than any other single sentence ever recorded by any prophet in any age” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3:246–47).


"2 My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations;

3 Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.

4 But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.

5 If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

6 But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed."


"2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face various trials, consider it all joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance complete its work, so that you may be complete and whole, lacking in nothing. 5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind." (NRSV)


Much of the advice here is easier said than done. How do we keep said advice, "Consider it a joy when we face trials"? How do we endure well and remember that "faith worketh patience"?

Verse 4 contains a variation of the Greek word teleios. It actually has the word twice in the verse. It, as stated in previous lessons, invokes the idea of one who is mature because they have undergone and completed a process. In ancient Near East contexts, that often included full initiation into all the ordinances of a particular religious tradition. Therefore, the process of perfection within the gospel inherently includes the fiery trials that will allow us to exercise our agency and choose Faith in Jesus Christ. It also includes the ordinances that contain "the power of godliness" and give us increased power in the Savior to overcome all things.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell once perceptively described the necessity of patience and why it is an attribute of our Heavenly Father:

"God’s attributes of omniscience and omnipotence no doubt made the plan of salvation feasible. But it was His perfect love which made the plan inevitable. And it is His perfect patience which makes it sustainable." (2)


The context Joseph Smith found himself in when he read James 1:5 is very similar to the context the Diaspora Jews found themselves in when Jacob/James originally gave the counsel. A whirlwind of religious opinions and persecutions made seeking out divine wisdom priceless counsel to the ancient Saints. The same thing applied to Joseph Smith in his quest for truth. How do we apply this counsel to obtain divine wisdom from God when we lack the wisdom needed to discern and/or make decisions? 

Obtaining wisdom suggests that many things are going to be hard to discern, which is why we need wisdom. It takes effort to obtain wisdom, which, I believe, is the meaning behind verse 6; don't waver in our search for truth because then we end up going with the current and waves of the world. Anchored wisdom and truth-seeking are hallmarks of discipleship.

President Russell M. Nelson has taught:

"Does God really want to speak to you? Yes! “As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course … as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints.”

You don’t have to wonder about what is true. You do not have to wonder whom you can safely trust... I urge you to stretch beyond your current spiritual ability to receive personal revelation, for the Lord has promised that “if thou shalt [seek], thou shalt receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge, that thou mayest know the mysteries and peaceable things—that which bringeth joy, that which bringeth life eternal.”

Oh, there is so much more that your Father in Heaven wants you to know... To those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, it is clear that the Father and the Son are giving away the secrets of the universe!" (3)

One religious educator echoed the same idea and connects it directly to what Joseph Smith learned from James 1:5.

"The restoration began not with a question, but the reassurance that questions are welcome." -  Jared Halverson

One Latter-Day Saint Historian, Steven C. Harper, speaks about Joseph Smith’s experience with these verses and how it set the stage for how Joseph Smith understood revelation. It is a historical point that has high application for us:

"We all know that, just because I can remember some things that happened years ago much more vividly than I can remember something that happened yesterday, it has a lot more to do with how deeply it was embedded in me at the time, and how much I rehearsed it. Joseph Smith rehearsed his vision a lot, and it was deeply, deeply embedded in him. Notice, for example, how deep the experience with James 1:5 was encoded in him. I mean, he could live to be 100, he’s never going to forget the day that he realized that the Bible didn’t have to be read as an archive of all the answers, it could actually point him to seek his own answers. That was an epiphany that he would not ever forget... [In his varying First Vision accounts], he can't seem to remember how old he was, ... [but] James 1:5 appears in virtually every account... Not just that it’s there, but it is emotional. It’s laden with meaning and import. That tells us that he deeply internalized it." (4)


Moving on through Chapter 1, the author builds upon his summary of moral teachings and speaks on being doers of the word and not hearers only. This reflects his further teaching in chapter 2 where we get a long breakdown of why "Faith without works is dead." It is not clear why Jacob feels the need to touch on this. It could be because Paul's teachings were often misunderstood or it was Jacob's critique of zealous Jews at the time who 'observed' Torah but left its rich moral teachings undone. Pharisees and the like were more committed to the legal and, frankly, the political parts of the Torah and did not observe "Pure Religion".

READ Jacob 1:27

"26 If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.

27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world."


How is our religion vain if we don't have bridled tongues? Does the bridled tongue include what we say or type in the digital world? What does it mean to be unspotted from the world? 

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has said:

"I suppose it goes without saying that negative speaking so often flows from negative thinking, including negative thinking about ourselves. We see our own faults, we speak—or at least think—critically of ourselves, and before long that is how we see everyone and everything. No sunshine, no roses, no promise of hope or happiness. Before long we and everybody around us are miserable... Speak hopefully. Speak encouragingly, including about yourself. Try not to complain and moan incessantly... Yes, life has its problems, and yes, there are negative things to face, but please accept one of Elder Holland’s maxims for living—no misfortune is so bad that whining about it won’t make it worse." (5) 

The moral teaching of visiting the fatherless and widows comes directly from the Jewish scriptures.


"17 For the Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward:

18 He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment.

19 Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt."


"16 ¶ Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;

17 Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow."

The Torah was plain on Israel's call to help the socially helpless. Isaiah, along with many others like Malachi and Amos, reiterated those teachings because Israel continually failed to keep these moral teachings revealed to Moses. In fact, Isaiah and those other prophets rebuked them for building up political systems that oppressed those who were less fortunate.


What experiences have you had in ministering to the "fatherless and widows"? How did or does that inform your understanding of "pure religion"?

As we minister to others, especially to those who are less fortunate than us, we learn the true value of a soul. This is necessary for us as we learn to become like our Heavenly Parents, for "The worth of a human soul is its capacity to become as God." (President Monson)

C.S. Lewis has given us this grand insight on the crowning reason why we minister (this was quoted in our most recent General Conference, see here):

"It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit." (7)


There is so much goodness and wisdom, but not enough time to cover them all in one Sunday School lesson. Therefore, let's jump to Chapter 5 where James gives us more practical advice on what ministering looks like in actual practice.

READ JAMES 5:13-18

"13 Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.

14 Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:

15 And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.

16 Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.

17 Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.

18 And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit."


"13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth yielded its harvest." (NRSV)


Oftentimes, even in our own families, we are sheepish in our request for priesthood blessings. James' words in verse 14 are as if it is the duty of Elders to answer the call of those sick and exercise their priesthood to bless and heal. How do we open ourselves up more so that we might call upon the Elders of the Church more often for priesthood blessings?

It is my opinion that understanding priesthood better so that we do not conflate certain things can go a long way in helping us open up. For example, Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written:

"Every elder in the Church holds as much priesthood as the President of the Church." (8)

Elder D. Todd Christofferson goes even further while also quoting President Boyd K. Packer:

"When a man [has the priesthood conferred upon him], he receives all of it. However, there are offices within the priesthood—divisions of authority and responsibility. … Sometimes one office is spoken of as being ‘higher than’ or ‘lower than’ another office. Rather than ‘higher’ or ‘lower,’ offices in the Melchizedek Priesthood represent different areas of service.” Brethren, I devoutly hope that we will no longer speak in terms of being “advanced” to another office in the Melchizedek Priesthood." (9)

If we Elders (or even High Priests) understood better that we have just as much priesthood as any other man in the Church, we might feel more urgency and more of a sense of dignity in our own personal priesthood ministry. The same could be said for those who feel hesitant to request blessings. They would value the priesthood intrinsically as it comes from Jesus Christ and not fall into the trap of becoming a "respecter of persons" (see Romans 2:11).


How or Why is "the prayer of the righteous... powerful and effective"? What is the difference in the avenues of praying in faith or receiving/giving a priesthood blessing?

Understanding the difference between these spiritual tools will also help us grow in spiritual power. Latter-Day Saint Scholar, Robert Millet, explains:

"What then is the difference between a man who holds the priesthood administering to the sick and a person who prays with great faith? We have seen often enough that the outcome may not be different at all: the sick are healed by the prayer of faith (see James 5:14–15; D&C 46:20), and the sick are healed by the power of the priesthood (see Mark 6:13; D&C 42:44)... what is the difference between a prayer and a priesthood ordinance? When one operates by and through the power of the priesthood, he is acting in the name and by the sacred power of God; that is, he is standing in the place of God, is acting for and on his behalf. There has been given to this man—and again, this comes by ordination—what might be called a divine investiture of authority. God is the Principal, and the human servant is the agent—the servant’s speech and actions cannot, must not, be independent of the one whom he represents... President John Taylor explains: "... any manifestation of power through the priesthood on the earth is simply a delegated power from the priesthood in the heavens, and the more the priesthood on the earth becomes assimilated with and subject to the priesthood in the heavens the more of this power shall we possess." (10)

It appears that the prayer of faith is a tool we are given as we continue to wrestle in our struggle to "grow into the principle of revelation." In other words, we can pray to slowly discover the will of the Lord and claim blessings that are only obtained by asking. As we exercise priesthood, there is more of an expectation that we will literally say and do those things that the Lord would say and do if He were present. This also includes a spiritual struggle and wrestling, but it allows us to literally stand in the place of deity which is really what all our struggling and wresting is about. We are to learn to become like the Lord and our Heavenly Parents. Where do women fall into this? That is a very closely related topic, but, for the sake of time, we must remember that women also exercise priesthood power and authority in their homes and in their callings. It is as if they also get to literally stand in the place of our Heavenly Parents and administer relief to those who need it.

It might be worth ending by noting the Greek words "save" (sōsei) or "heal"(iathēte) in verses 15-16 don't have to just refer to physical ailments. They can just as readily refer to spiritual ailments (see verse 20) or a sense of 'restoration' or 'deliverance'. (11) This healing and saving in the context of James' writings is used surrounded by Greek words that denote a plural audience (not just one person). In other words, this healing and saving project of prayer and priesthood can't be done in any other way unless we brush up against one another. As weak and fallen humans, we have a hard time remembering this and staying motivated to minister to one another. Elder Neal A. Maxwell offers a wonderful perspective:

"Since we are all poised at the edge of [this second estate], it would be quite human for us to say resignedly, “Here we go again!” I am so glad Heavenly Father doesn’t have such feelings! Even though his course is “one eternal round,” as the plan of salvation is executed and re-executed again and again in realms beyond our purview, his love is constant and personal. I am so glad that Jesus did not view each healing as merely one more duty. For him, such a duty was delight. G. K. Chesterton concluded, “God has never grown tired of making all daisies alike, because God has never grown tired of daisies.” Nor must we grow tired of each other." (12)


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