Viewpoint: A Letter of Untold Worth

Contributed By the Church News

  • 15 November 2015

If a letter written by a sibling of Jesus were discovered today, it would be a find of untold worth. Most of us have a copy of such a letter. We know it as the General Epistle of James.

Article Highlights

  • The Epistle of James was also written to the Saints in the dispensation of the fulness of times.
  • The Epistle of James contains the essence of Christianity.
  • James 1:5 “has had a greater impact and a more far reaching effect” than any other verse.

“It might well be said that the crowning act of the ministry of James was not his martyrdom for the testimony of Jesus, but his recitation, as guided by the Holy Ghost, of these simple words which led to the opening of the heavens in modern times.” —Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–1985) of the Quorum of the Twelve

Suppose, while browsing in a library of ancient manuscripts, you noticed a letter purportedly written by the brother of Jesus Christ. Would you be interested in reading a translation of that letter?

Most of us have a copy of such a letter. We know it as the General Epistle of James, who was the half-brother of Jesus. James addressed his letter to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad.”

Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–1985) suggested the letter was written to not just blood descendants of the house of Israel but also to the Saints in the dispensation of the fulness of times:

“Paul wrote to the saints of his own day, and if his doctrine and counsel blesses us of later years, so much the better. But James addressed himself to those of the twelve scattered tribes of Israel who belonged to the Church; that is, to a people yet to be gathered, yet to receive the gospel, yet to come into the fold of Christ; and if his words had import to the small cluster of saints of Judah and Benjamin who joined the Church in the meridian of time, so much the better” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3:243).

“Ancient tradition … states that James became bishop of the church at Jerusalem and was called James the Just, respected by Jews and Christians as being the most just man alive. It is said that he prayed so often and so long for the people that his knees became as hard as camel knees” (Gerald N. Lund, Jesus Christ, Key to the Plan of Salvation [1991], 50).

Only a few pages in length, the Epistle of James contains the essence of Christianity. Among the important teachings of James are those that have to do with pure religion, faith and works, the need to control the unruly tongue, an exhortation to patience, calling the elders for a blessing when sick, and the desirability of being an instrument of conversion in the life of even one other person. (See Bible Dictionary, “James, Epistle of.”)

One verse in particular is very familiar to Latter-day Saints. In the tumult of religious fervor in the area in which his family lived, Joseph Smith wanted to know which church he should join. One day he read, “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” (James 1:5).

Elder McConkie wrote: “This single verse 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. It might well be said that the crowning act of the ministry of James was not his martyrdom for the testimony of Jesus, but his recitation, as guided by the Holy Ghost, of these simple words which led to the opening of the heavens in modern times” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3:247).

Of reading James 1:5 Joseph Smith said: “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know” (Joseph Smith—History 1:12).

“Of course, what happened next changed the course of human history,” said President Howard W. Hunter (1907–1995). “Determining to ‘ask of God,’ young Joseph retired to a grove near his rural home. There, in answer to his fervent prayer, God, the Eternal Father, and his Son, Jesus Christ, visited Joseph and counseled him. That great manifestation ... answered many more questions for our dispensation than simply which church young Joseph should or should not join” (“Blessed from on High,” Oct. 1988 general conference).

President Hunter said all of us face times in our lives when we need heavenly help in a special and urgent way.

“Perhaps no promise in life is more reassuring than that promise of divine assistance and spiritual guidance in times of need. It is a gift freely given from heaven, a gift that we need from our earliest youth through the very latest days of our lives.”

Referring to Joseph reading in the Epistle of James, President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) quoted James 1:6, in which the ancient Apostle counseled: “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.”

President Hinckley said: “It was faith, the simple faith of a 14-year-old boy, that took him into the woods that spring morning. It was faith that took him to his knees in pleading for understanding. The marvelous fruit of that faith was a vision glorious and beautiful, of which this great work is but the extended shadow.

“It was by faith that he kept himself worthy of the remarkable manifestations which followed in bringing to the earth the keys, the authority, the power to reestablish the Church of Jesus Christ in these latter days” (“God Grant Us Faith,” Oct. 1983 general conference).

If a letter written by a sibling of Jesus were discovered today, it would be a find of untold worth. The value of the one preserved for us in the New Testament is determined not in the marketplace but in the enrichment of our souls and the understanding of those priceless teachings pertaining to the gospel of Jesus Christ. May we treasure the message of this epistle written for our benefit.