The Man and His Message
James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings. (1:1)
Counterfeiting is a major problem in our society. Forged money, credit cards, jewelry, works of art, and virtually everything else of value are passed off as genuine to deceive the unwary. Consequently, valuable commodities must be carefully examined to determine their genuineness.
That is also true of the most valuable commodity of all—saving faith. A right relationship to the living, holy God of the universe with the promise of eternal heaven is incomparably priceless. Those who think they have it should carefully examine and test it to determine its validity. To be deceived by counterfeit money or a counterfeit work of art results only in temporal loss; to be deceived by a counterfeit faith results in eternal tragedy.
The master counterfeiter of saving faith is Satan. Disguising themselves as “angels of light” (2 Cor. 11:14–15), he and his servants deceive the unwary through false systems of religion, including false forms of Christianity. Thinking they are on the narrow path leading to heaven, those who are trapped in counterfeit religion, or who simply trust in their personal concept of salvation, are actually on the way to eternal damnation.
That deception extends to those within biblical Christianity who are deluded about their salvation.
To be deceived about one’s relationship to God is the most dangerous and frightening delusion possible. Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount our Lord graphically portrayed that tragedy:
Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.” (Matt 7:21–23)
Because of the ever-present danger of counterfeit faith, God’s Word continually calls for professed salvation to be tested for validity. In Psalm 17:3 David declared the results of God’s testing his faith: “You have tried my heart; You have visited me by night; You have tested me and You find nothing.” In Psalm 26:1–2 he pleaded, “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering. Examine me, O Lord, and try me; test my mind and my heart.” He echoed that plea in the familiar words of Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (vv. 23–24). Amid the chaos and desolation following the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah cried out to his fellow Israelites, “Let us examine and probe our ways, and let us return to the Lord” (Lam. 3:40).
Through Ezekiel, the Lord says of the genuinely repentant man: “Because he considered and turned away from all his transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die” (Ezek. 18:28; cf. Ps. 119:59). Through the prophet Haggai, the Lord exhorted His people, “Consider your ways!” (Hag. 1:5, 7).
The New Testament also repeatedly stresses the necessity of testing faith. John the Baptist challenged the religious leaders of his day to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). Describing his ministry to King Agrippa, Paul related how he “kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:20). He admonished the Galatians, “Each one must examine his own work” (Gal. 6:4), and the Corinthians, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5).
The intended and inevitable result of saving faith is a life of good works, and it was for that very purpose that Christ redeemed the church. After declaring that salvation is by grace alone, the apostle Paul reminds believers that “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:8–10). “For the grace of God has appeared,” Paul wrote to Titus, “bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11–12; cf. v. 14). The writer of Hebrews warned his readers: “Let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it” (Heb. 4:1; cf. 12:15). The fearful possibility of missing out on salvation calls for stringent self-examination. When the writer of Hebrews illustrated the essence of saving faith, he described the courageous obedience of Old Testament believers who demonstrated their salvation in lives of loyalty and faithfulness to God (11:1–39).
The first epistle of John mentions many marks of genuine faith. It must go beyond mere verbal profession (1:6–10; 2:4, 9) and must include obedience to God (2:3, 5–6; 3:24; 5:2–3). The redeemed are marked by not loving the world (2:15), by living a righteous life (2:29), by forsaking and avoiding sin (3:6, 9), and by loving fellow believers (3:14; 4:7, 11).
But no passage of Scripture more clearly presents the tests of true and living faith than the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus sets forth an extensive series of tests aimed at showing self-righteous Jews—typified by the proud, boastful, self-satisfied scribes and Pharisees (see 5:20)—how far short of genuine salvation they fell. By so doing, He unmasked their false religion, hypocrisy, and counterfeit salvation.
The sermon begins with the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3–12), which delineate the attitudes that are to accompany genuine saving faith. Those attitudes include meekness, mercy, joy in persecution, humility, a sense of sinfulness, and a deep longing for righteousness.
The next section (5:13–16) reveals the outworking of Beatitude virtues in the lives of the truly redeemed, who are as “salt and light” in the evil, dark, fallen world. Instead of being an influence for evil, they influence the world with God-given righteousness.
True salvation will be marked by genuine commitment to the Word of God (5:17–20), by external righteous behavior that stems from internal righteousness of the heart (5:21–48), by proper worship (6:1–18), by a correct view of money and material possessions (6:19–34), and by right personal relationships (7:1–12).
Jesus concludes the sermon by describing two paths to eternal destiny—the broad one that leads to damnation, and the narrow one that leads to life, which he exhorted His hearers to enter (7:13). He warned them to avoid false prophets, who sought to divert them onto the broad path that leads to destruction (vv. 15–20), and described the frightening consequences of empty profession in light of certain coming judgment (vv. 21–27).
It seems clear that James was profoundly influenced by the Sermon on the Mount—the truths of which he doubtless heard in person from Jesus, either on that occasion or others—and many of its themes have parallels in his epistle. In fact, the book of James may well be viewed as a practical commentary on that sermon. Like His Lord before him, James presents a series of tests by which the genuineness of salvation can be determined.
The first verse of this epistle introduces us to the human author, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. As explained in the Introduction, the James who penned this epistle was the half brother of the Lord. Contrary to Roman Catholic dogma, Joseph and Mary had other children after Jesus was born. That truth is implied in Matthew’s statement that Joseph kept Mary a virgin until the birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:25) and is explicit in Luke’s description of Jesus as Mary’s firstborn son (Luke 2:7, emphasis added). Those children were His half brothers and half sisters (cf. Matt. 12:46–47; Mark 3:31–35; Luke 8:19–21; John 2:12). Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3 list Jesus’ half brothers as James, Joseph (Joses), Simon, and Judas. Paul explicitly calls James “the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:19). Mark also refers to Jesus’ half sisters, although not by name. That both Matthew and Mark list James first implies that he was the eldest of Jesus’ half brothers.
Surprisingly, although they grew up with Him and observed firsthand His sinless, perfect life, Jesus’ brothers did not at first believe in Him. John records their unbelief exhibited by challenging Jesus to reveal Himself openly:
Now the feast of the Jews, the Feast of Booths, was near. Therefore His brothers said to Him, “Leave here and go into Judea, so that Your disciples also may see Your works which You are doing. For no one does anything in secret when he himself seeks to be known publicly. If You do these things, show Yourself to the world.” For not even His brothers were believing in Him. (John 7:2–5)
Their unbelief bore sad testimony to the truth of Jesus’ declaration that “a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household” (Mark 6:4). So strong was His brothers’ unbelief that they even thought Jesus had taken leave of His senses (Mark 3:21). (It is worth noting that His brothers’ unbelief disproves the apocryphal accounts of Jesus’ alleged childhood miracles—as does the direct statement of John 2:11 that changing the water into wine at Cana was the “beginning of His signs,” emphasis added.) Their unbelief apparently lasted throughout Jesus’ earthly life and ministry.
But by the time those who believed in Him gathered in Jerusalem after His resurrection, something remarkable had happened. Acts 1:13 notes that the apostles were there, and verse 14 adds: “These all [the apostles] with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers” (emphasis added). What happened to change His skeptical, unbelieving brothers into devoted followers? Paul gives the answer in 1 Corinthians 15:7, noting that after Jesus’ resurrection, “He appeared to James.” Doubtless as a result of that personal, post-resurrection appearance, James came to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The church was born on the Day of Pentecost and James, although not an apostle, soon became one of its key leaders. When Paul visited Jerusalem, he discovered that James, as well as Peter and John, were pillars of the church there (Gal. 2:9–12). Because the apostles were frequently away preaching the gospel, James eventually became the preeminent leader of the Jerusalem church. To borrow a contemporary term, he was its senior pastor. Following his miraculous release from Herod’s jail, Peter ordered the astounded believers to “report these things to James and the brethren” (Acts 12:17), clearly indicating that James had become the one to whom important news was to be first reported.
James presided over the pivotal Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), which had been convened to decide the momentous question of whether salvation required obedience to the Mosaic Law or was by grace alone working through faith. After much debate, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas reported God’s gracious salvation of Gentiles through their ministries (vv. 6–12). James then reinforced Peter’s point, handed down the council’s decision (vv. 12–21), and most likely composed the resulting letter to Gentile believers (vv. 23–29). Many years later, when Paul returned to Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey, James again appears in the presiding role. Luke reports that “after we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present” (Acts 21:17–18). The plurality of elders did not negate James’s primary leadership role, as equality of apostolic office did not negate Peter’s leadership of the Twelve.
Also known as James the Just because of his righteous life, he was martyred about a.d. 62, according to Josephus.
a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, (1:1b)
In spite of his prominence, what stands out in the first verse of his epistle is James’s humility. He does not describe himself as Mary’s son and the Lord’s brother, refer to his position as head of the Jerusalem church, or mention that the resurrected Christ personally appeared to him. Instead, he describes himself simply as a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Doulos (bond-servant) depicts a slave, a person deprived of all personal freedom and totally under the control of his master. Absolute obedience and loyalty to his master (who provided him with food, clothing, and housing) was required of every doulos. In contrast to the andrapodon, who was made a slave, the doulos was born a slave. James had become a doulos by his new birth through faith in Jesus Christ.
To be a doulos of God was considered a great honor in Jewish culture. Such Old Testament luminaries as Abraham (Gen. 26:24), Isaac (Gen. 24:14), Jacob (Ezek. 28:25), Job (Job 1:8), Moses (Ex. 14:31), Joshua (Josh. 24:29), Caleb (Num. 14:24), David (2 Sam. 3:18), Isaiah (Isa. 20:3), and Daniel (Dan. 6:20) are described as God’s servants. In the New Testament, Epaphras (Col. 4:12), Timothy (Phil. 1:1), Paul (Rom. 1:1), Peter (2 Pet. 1:1), Jude (Jude 1), John (Rev. 1:1), and our Lord Himself (Acts 3:13) all bore the title of doulos. By taking that title, James numbered himself with those honored not for who they were, but whom they served—the living God.
to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings. (1:1c)
In addition to his vital leadership role in the Jerusalem church, James also had a wider ministry. The term twelve tribes was a title commonly used in the New Testament to refer to the nation of Israel (cf. Matt. 19:28; Acts 26:7; Rev. 21:12). Although the twelve tribes split into two nations (Israel, the northern kingdom, and Judah, the southern kingdom), God’s chosen people always consisted of the Jews from all twelve tribes, which one day God will sovereignly reunite (Ezek. 37:15–22). When the kingdom split after Solomon’s reign, ten tribes made up the northern kingdom of Israel, and Benjamin and Judah formed the southern kingdom of Judah. After the fall and deportation of Israel to Assyria (722 b.c.), some of the remnant of the ten tribes moved south, thus preserving the twelve tribes in Judah’s land. Although tribal identity could not be established with certainty after Judah was conquered and Jerusalem and temple records were destroyed by Babylon (586 b.c.), God will restore the nation and delineate each person’s tribal identity in the future (Isa. 11:12–13; Jer. 3:18; 50:19; Ezek. 37; Rev. 7:5–8).
James was therefore addressing all Jews who [were] dispersed abroad, regardless of their tribal origins. In this context, abroad refers to any place in the world outside of Palestine. Over the previous several hundred years, various conquerors (including the Romans in 63 b.c.) had deported Jews from their homeland and spread them throughout the known world. In addition, many other Jews had voluntarily moved to other countries for business or other reasons (cf. Acts 2:5–11). By New Testament times, many Jews lived abroad. The Greek word diaspora (“scattering”) became a technical term to identify Jews living outside Palestine (cf. 1 Pet. 1:1).
From the message of the letter itself, as well as from James’s frequent addressing of his readers as brothers, it is clear that he is writing to Jewish Christians. It is likely that most of those believers were converted in or near Jerusalem and may have once been under James’s pastoral care to some degree. James’s primary audience were those Jews who had fled because of persecution and were still suffering trials because of their faith (1:2). To give them confidence, hope, and strength to endure those trials, James gave them a series of tests (see the Introduction) by which they could determine the genuineness of their faith.
Chairein (greetings) means “rejoice,” or “be glad,” and was a common secular greeting. But to James the word was no mere formality; he expected what he wrote to gladden his readers’ hearts by giving them means to verify the genuineness of their salvation. That, James knew, would provide great comfort to them in their trials, which Satan persistently uses to try to make Christians doubt they are indeed God’s children and fellow heirs with Jesus Christ.
Introduction to James
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. (James 1:1)
For many believers, James is a beloved book. Eminently practical, it is full of vivid exhortations to godly living. In short compass it offers concrete counsel on an array of issues that confront Christians every day: trials, poverty and riches, favoritism, social justice, the tongue, worldliness, boasting, planning, prayer, illness, and more.
Yet James’s candor and clarity are a two-edged sword. “Its call to realize professed ideals in appropriate action has spoken with prophetic urgency to generations of readers who have found James’ directives difficult to perform rather than to understand.”
Assessing Failure and Faith
James, like the Sermon on the Mount, is sublime and penetrating—almost too penetrating. Its piercing assessment of our failures proves we cannot achieve holiness by our striving. James stirs us to action, but as it reveals our sins, we doubt our ability to do what the writer commands. Yet James often declares that obedience is a hallmark of living faith: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (1:22).
James demands an obedience that honest readers know they cannot render. Therefore, while the individual sentences and paragraphs of James are clear, we struggle to resolve the tension between the stringency of James’s demands and our inability to attain them. If this were Paul, he would turn our attention to redemption and justification. But James never mentions the cross or the atonement, the death or the resurrection of Christ. He never uses the gospel vocabulary of justification by faith, redemption, or reconciliation. Indeed, the absence of these elements prompts observers to wonder where Jesus and redemption are found in this letter. James does use Jesus’ name twice, in 1:1 and 2:1, but on both occasions it is a passing reference rather than an exposition of his life and redemption. Similarly, while the term “faith” appears fourteen times in James, eleven of them occur in 2:14–26, a discussion that stresses that faith without deeds is dead (2:17, 26). If we want to hear the gospel of James, we must consider who James was.
The Life of James
James simply calls himself “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” but several lines of evidence indicate that he is the half-brother of Jesus, the natural son of both Mary and Joseph. When the author calls himself James without further identification, it implies that his audience knows him and his credentials well enough.
There are three men named James in the New Testament: two apostles and the brother of Jesus. Of the apostles, James of the trio Peter, James, and John suffered martyrdom at the beginning of the Christian era. The second apostolic James is the son of Alphaeus. He is nearly a cipher in the Gospels, and we know nothing of him after the resurrection. So we doubt that he is our James.
The process of elimination leads us to think that the author is the brother of Jesus. But there is more. First, both the book of Acts and early Christian historians say Jesus’ brother became a leader of the Jerusalem church. He is prominent at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). His speech there and the subsequent letter, both in Acts 15, contain a number of distinctive phrases that also appear in James’s epistle. James the church leader and James the epistle writer also share a passion for the law of Moses (Acts 15:21; James 2:8–11) and for peacemaking (Acts 15:28–29; James 3:17–18).
It is doubtful that James believed in or even respected Jesus in the early phases of his ministry. If, in Genesis 37, Joseph’s brothers struggled with his sense that he was destined for greatness, imagine the difficulty of being Jesus’ younger brother. The Gospels hint at familial tension. For example, the first time John’s gospel mentions Jesus’ siblings, they mock him. The Feast of Tabernacles was approaching, and his brothers said: “You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” John adds, “For even his own brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:3–5). On another occasion, Jesus’ family became alarmed when his ministry began to attract unruly crowds and to rouse opposition from the Pharisees. When they heard about it, Mark says, “They went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind’ ” (Mark 3:20–22). Later, Jesus’ family showed scant respect for his work when they arrived during a teaching session and acted as if they had the right to interrupt him (Matt. 12:46–50). Finally, when the gospels name those who stayed with Jesus at the cross, they list Mary his mother, but not his brothers (Mark 15:40; John 19:25).
It is impossible to determine when James came to faith. But Jesus, after his resurrection, graciously appeared to James, either to instill or to seal his faith (1 Cor. 15:3–8). After that, James rapidly became a pillar of the Jerusalem church. In Acts 15, when the church convened its first great council in Jerusalem, Peter and Paul described the terms and the progress of the gospel among the Gentiles. Both apostles preached that salvation came to Gentiles by faith alone, apart from works, apart from the laws about food and circumcision that established Jewish identity (Acts 10:34–11:18). Although some initially disagreed, the council established that Jew and Gentile are both saved “through the grace of our Lord Jesus” (15:11). At the council, James gave the concluding speech:
Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
“After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of men may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things.” (Acts 15:13–17)
In the early church, James acquired the title “James the Just” because of his personal righteousness and his passion to promote righteousness in others. We see the same passion in James’s epistle. He calls the law “the perfect law that gives freedom” (James 1:25) and “the royal law” (2:8). But the letter never asks readers to keep the laws regarding food, circumcision, and Sabbath that marked the Jews as an ethnic group. At the Jerusalem Council, James did urge adherence to some aspects of distinctively Jewish law (Acts 21:19–21), but it seems that his goal was peaceful relations in early church life as Jew and Gentile learned to live together as the family of God. At any rate, his letter never requires obedience to laws about circumcision or food. Thus James subordinated his passion for the law to his greater passion for the gospel. He had a zeal for legal righteousness, but greater zeal for the grace of God.
The Gospel according to James
With 59 commands in 108 verses, the epistle of James has an obvious zeal for law. In his imperatives, James directly communicates the royal law, the law of King Jesus (2:8). But the hasty reader will not see much of the gospel in James. If James is merely a series of commands, its moral clarity is a burden, and its limpid commands only condemn. While James does lack familiar formulations of the gospel, his insistence on obedience is unmistakable. He says good deeds mark true religion:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (1:27)
Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (2:10)
Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins. (4:17)
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (1:22)
Similarly, James expects teachers to do what they know and say: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (3:1).
This call to obey or to face judgment is all the more stringent since James insists that everyone fails to do what the law requires. James says we must control the tongue (1:26), yet he says no man can tame the tongue (3:8). He says we must avoid the pollution of the world (1:27), yet he says our envy and our quarrels prove we are worldly (4:1–4).
These paradoxes lead to the gospel of James. He says that all are liable to judgment, but “mercy triumphs over judgment” (2:13), for “the Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (5:11). If we see our sins and confess them, we will be healed (5:16). Further, whoever sees the sins of another and “turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (5:20). As I will argue in later chapters, the climax of James occurs in 4:6. James completes his indictment of human sin in 4:5, then says: “But [God] gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ ” The double mention of God’s grace at the rhetorical climax of the book shows that the gospel of James is the message of God’s grace for sinners.
James’s emphasis on the word of God supplements this idea. Because the word convicts us of sin, James can say that God “chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (1:18). He says his readers should “humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (1:21) because the word brings the message of grace.
The Voice of James
Vital as it is that we grasp the gospel of James, we also profit by hearing the distinctive voice of James. An observant Christian comparing Romans, Hebrews, and James will notice stylistic differences between James and the other epistles. For example, James neither opens nor closes with formal greetings. He makes no reference to personally shared history. Unlike Paul, James claims no authority or rank. Unlike Paul and Hebrews, James has little theological argumentation. Indeed, James can sound more like a prophet or wise man than like Paul.
James as a Book of Wisdom
Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs are called “wisdom literature.” These books observe who is and who is not skilled in the art of living. Wisdom has been defined as “the discipline of applying truth to one’s life in the light of experience.” It is “the knowledge of God’s world and a knack of fitting oneself into it.”6 Wise animals know how to live well (Prov. 30:24–28). English translations vary, but the Hebrew Bible calls skilled people “wise” whether they are artisans (Ex. 31:3–6; 35:35; 1 Kings 7:14; Jer. 10:9), boatmen (Ezek. 27:8), or politicians (2 Sam. 13:3).
James resembles wisdom books in important ways. James and Solomon agree that wisdom is a gift we rightly seek from God (1 Kings 3:7–12; James 1:5–8). They also agree that we can work for wisdom. Wisdom involves both meditation on Scripture and observation of the world. This is why wisdom often says, “I have seen” (Job 5:3; Eccl. 1:14; 3:10; 5:13; 6:1; 9:11; 10:5, 7; “… observed,” Job 4:8), or “Do you see?” (Prov. 22:29; 26:12; 29:20). Wisdom observes the blessings of obedience and the price of disobedience. James does the same. Building on biblical themes (James 2:8; 2:23; 4:5–6), James applies them to a stream of observations of daily life. He detects the way we snub the poor (2:1–4), the way we content ourselves with pious blather (2:14–17), the way our tongues run out of control (3:9–10), the way selfish desires lead to quarrels (4:1–4). There are also verbal parallels between James and Proverbs.
|The one who is rich … will pass away like a wild flower. For the sunrises with scorching heat and withers the plant.… In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business. (1:10–11)
||Whoever trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf. (11:28)
|Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. (1:19–20)
||A patient man has great understanding, but a quick-tempered man displays folly. (14:29)
||A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms aquarrel. (15:18)
|My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. (2:1)
||It is not good to be partial to the wicked or to deprive the innocent of justice. (18:5)
|We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. (3:2)
||When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise. (10:19)
If James adopts elements of the style of wisdom, he also shares its interests: the roles of testing and discipline in creating wisdom, the power and the perversions of speech, the lure and emptiness of wealth, and the contrast between righteousness and wickedness.
James as Prophetic Literature
The book of James is not essentially prophecy. But when James begins to denounce sin, he can sound like a prophet of old. He warns that God’s judgment will shorten the life of the rich and lawless (James 1:11; 5:5). To rich oppressors, James says:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.… Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you (5:1, 4–6).
This sounds a great deal like the prophets Isaiah and Amos.
Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.
The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing:
“Surely the great houses will become desolate,
the fine mansions left without occupants.” (Isa. 5:8–9)
You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.…
You oppress the righteous and take bribes
and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
(Amos 5:11–12; cf. Mic. 2:1–3)
James as Meditation on the Teachings of Jesus
James immersed himself in the teachings of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7). Though James never quotes Jesus, he constantly alludes to his words and applies them afresh. James expresses the same themes in much the same language as Jesus. Consider these parallels:
- Love of neighbor is a great command (James 2:8 and Matt. 22:39).
- Self-exaltation leads to humiliation (James 4:6–10 and Matt. 23:12; cf. Luke 14:11; 18:9).
- Take no oaths (James 5:12 and Matt. 5:33–37).
- Do not judge (James 4:11–12 and Matt. 7:1–5).
- Moth and rust destroy riches (James 5:2 and Matt. 6:19).
- The Lord is coming; he is at the door (James 5:8–9 and Matt. 24:33).
As James meditates on Jesus’ teaching, he also expresses similar themes in different language:
- Believers must rejoice in trials (James 1:2 and Matt. 5:11–12).
- The goal of the righteous is maturity (James 1:4 and Matt. 5:48).
- We ask God for good gifts (James 1:5 and Matt. 7:7).
- We are doers, not just hearers, of the word (James 1:22 and Matt. 7:24–27).
- Disciples must keep the whole law (James 2:10 and Matt. 5:19).
- We act upon our profession of faith (James 2:14–26 and Matt. 7:21–23).
- We are accountable for every word (James 3:2 and Matt. 12:36–37).
- Peacemakers are blessed (James 3:17–18 and Matt. 5:9).
- We cannot serve two friends or masters (James 4:4 and Matt. 6:24).
The Audience of James
At first glance, it seems that James is writing to Jews. After all, to translate literally, James addresses his epistle “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1 esv). The twelve tribes traditionally represent Israel, and the dispersion signifies the Jews scattered throughout the pagan world. But there are reasons to think James is writing for Jewish Christians, not Jews in general. First, James is a church leader. Second, Paul and Peter established that the church is the true heir of God’s promises to the tribes of Israel. Third, “dispersion” can serve as a metaphor to indicate that believers are never fully at home in this world (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11; 1 Peter is also addressed to “the dispersion,” but it is clear that his readers are mostly Gentiles). So there is reason to believe that James, like other New Testament writers, envisions a wide audience.
Wherever his audience lives, James assumes they are familiar with life in Israel, for he often describes life from the perspective of a commoner in the towns of Judea or Galilee. For example, he mentions two rainy seasons, one early, one late; two rainy seasons are a distinct trait of the weather of Israel and the eastern Mediterranean. James also calls his meeting place a synagogue (2:2), he assumes that his audience takes pride in its monotheism, and he prods them to live their faith rather than resting in doctrinal rectitude (2:19ff.)
The Pastoral Spirit of James
Scholars address an array of additional themes when they introduce James. These include the structure, the canonicity, and the literary style of James, along with the date of its composition. Interested readers can consult standard introductions to the New Testament for these topics. I especially recommend Luke Johnson’s analysis of the style and structure of James and Doug Moo’s analysis of its authorship and theology.13
Among such topics we may linger over one, the sermonic tone of James. James is a letter; it urges Christians to put their knowledge into practice by living out their professed devotion to Jesus. But James has the rhetorical texture of a sermon. We see that in James’s use of direct address. He often calls his readers “my brothers” (e.g., 1:2; 2:1; 3:12; 5:12) or “my dear brothers” (e.g., 1:16; 2:5). Yet he can also address his audience as “you adulterous people” (4:4) or “you rich” (5:1).
James constantly engages his readers with rhetorical questions, sometimes in rapid sequences (2:4–7; 2:14–21; 3:11–13; 4:1–5; 4:12–14). James raises and answers objections that he supposes his readers may have (1:13; 2:18; 4:13–14; 5:13–14). An imaginary figure speaks on four occasions, to articulate a godless perspective toward poverty (2:3) or the needy (2:16) or business plans (4:13), or to object to James’s teaching (2:18). The use of imaginary objectors implies that James thinks his audience could be more receptive to his message. He shows a godly impatience with the church on occasion, as he charges them, “Do not be deceived” (1:16 esv), or “Come now” (4:3; 5:1 esv). Elsewhere he questions them, “Do you want evidence?” (2:20 niv), or “Do you not know?” (4:4 esv).
James also engages his people with abundant illustrations, using horses, springs of water, boats, fire, mirrors, farm work, flowers, mist, travel, and Old Testament heroes. He creates an array of vivid images: desire becomes pregnant and gives birth to sin (1:15); demons believe and shudder (2:18); the rich howl, riches rot, and corroding metals eat flesh like fire (5:1–3). Finally, James speaks in paradox: tests are a joy (1:2), and the rich should boast in their humiliation (1:10).
The style and structure of the letter are often fascinating, but James always puts his rhetoric to the service of his goal: to promote a life consistent with faith in Christ the Lord. True heirs of the kingdom live like friends of God (2:5; 2:23). Genuine believers order their lives under the will and word of the Lord. Then, when they fail to meet the standard, they plead for grace. As James says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (4:10). That is the gospel of James.
The Opening of the Letter (1:1)
In general, letters of the ancient world followed a standard form that included the author’s self-identification, those to whom the letter was addressed, and a greeting, and James uses this pattern to open his work. The NT letters in particular, however, often carry interesting overtones hinting at nuances in how the author regarded himself and the recipients of his work, and as seen in v. 1, James includes such overtones.
1 Our author, as already discussed in the introduction, probably is James, brother of the Lord and leader of the Jerusalem church in the mid-first century (e.g., Ac 15:13–21). However, James does not appeal to his familial relationship with Jesus as a basis for authority. Rather, he calls himself “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (the NASB reads “a bond-servant”). The term translated “servant” is doulos (GK 1528), a word used of various kinds of slavery or servanthood in the ancient world. A specific use of the word to emphasize leadership as service to the Lord, both in the OT and other Jewish writings, is probably in the immediate backdrop here. For instance, both Moses and David were referred to as God’s servants, and the Servant of Isaiah obviously carries the title. In these cases the servant of God is God’s humble representative, who comes not with an arrogant posture in his own authority but rather to carry out work or ministry as one called by God. Didymus the Blind, a writer of the fourth century, remarked that those of the world who wish to glorify themselves play up their qualifications when they write letters, but by contrast the apostles begin their letters by noting “that they are slaves of God and Christ” (cited in Bray, 2). Thus the designation combines the softness of humility and the strength of authority in an integrated vision of leadership under the lordship of God.
Further, James is a servant of “the Lord Jesus Christ.” Commentators have pointed out that the construction rendered “of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” by the NIV is awkward in Greek. It is possible to translate the construction as “of [our] God and Lord Jesus Christ,” but it is more likely the NIV has it right in this case. James witnesses to the fact that servanthood to God and his Messiah, Jesus, is a package deal. Jesus, whom God “made both Lord and Christ,” the second member of the Trinity, is one to whom James owes his allegiance. In Christianity, to be the servant of God necessitates being the servant of the Lord, God’s Messiah, and to follow Messiah implies service to God.
The “greetings” (chairein, GK 5897), a very common form of salutation in ancient letters of the time, is addressed “To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” In the wake of the destruction of the northern kingdom by Assyria (722 BC; see 2 Ki 17:5–6) and the exile brought against the southern kingdom by the Babylonians (587–538 BC; see 2 Ki 25:1–12), the Jewish people were “dispersed” among the nations. The term diaspora (GK 1402) could variously refer to the place to which the Jews had been scattered, the scattered people themselves, or the state of being dispersed abroad. As noted in the introduction, although some have read the address “twelve tribes” as a symbolic way of referring to Christians generally, it is better taken as a reference to Christian Jews (1:1; 2:1), who did not see themselves as adherents to a religion different from broader Judaism (Nystrom, 17–19; Bauckham, 16). One of the promises concerning Messiah is that he would bring the twelve tribes back together again in a cohesive nation (Isa 11:11–16; Jer 31:8; Eze 37:15–22). Indeed, this promise was seen by the early Christian community as fulfilled in their existence as reconstituted Israel, the new people of God bought by his salvation through Christ (e.g., Ro 9:24–26; see Laws, 47–48). Yet here the designation should be taken as racial and geographical.
Setting the scene
If James were to post his letter today it would be marked ‘Return to sender’ on the ground of being insufficiently addressed. He names no names and specifies no place as destination: twelve tribes contain a lot of people and the Dispersion, in its special sense of the scattered people of God, was in principle world-wide.
Yet, at first sight, is any great problem really involved? Twelve tribes reminds us of the Old Testament people of God, the children of the twelve sons of Jacob (e.g. Ex. 1:2–5). Even in the New Testament Paul can still speak of ‘our twelve tribes’ (Acts 26:7), referring to those who can trace their descent back to the twelve patriarchs. Dispersion, too, is a term with a clear meaning. From the time of the return from exile in Babylon, the people of God were in two sections: those who had come back to live in the promised land (e.g. Ezr. 1:;2:1ff.) and those who remained living among the nations. The latter group were seen as ‘dispersed’ throughout the world, and the word ‘dispersion’ came to be used both of the scattered people and the world-wide area, outside Palestine, where they lived.
But no sooner do we feel our problem is clarifying than fresh difficulties arise. There are two. First, by the time of James, the physical descendants of the people of the Old Testament had long since become ‘the Jews’. James, however, writes as a Christian to Christians. Both he, the writer, and they, the readers, acknowledge Jesus as Lord. James is a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1); they are his ‘brethren’ (1:2) whom he further describes (2:1) as united with himself in ‘the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Secondly, as James sees it, the whole of the twelve tribes are in the Dispersion. The words have lost their characteristic contemporary use among the Jews; they no longer contrast some who are ‘abroad’ with others who are ‘at home’. Every one of the tribes addressed is away from the homeland, dispersed in the world.
We would seem, therefore, to be back in square one! Who are these twelve tribes? To answer this question we must follow another line—the straight line from the Old Testament into the New. Our Lord Jesus chose out twelve apostles (Mk. 3:13–14) and looked forward to the day of his own glory when they would sit on twelve thrones ruling the twelve tribes of Israel (Mt. 19:28). In doing this he was not creating a ‘new’ Israel (either alongside or replacing an ‘old’ Israel); he was leading the Israel of the Old Covenant on into its full, intended reality as the Israel of the New Covenant, the apostolic people of our Lord Jesus Christ, those whom Paul calls ‘the Israel of God’ (Gal. 6:16). In a word, ‘Israel’ is the name of the people of Jesus; it is the true and inalienable title of his church. Because of this Paul teaches that Christians are children of Abraham (Gal. 3:7) and that Abraham is our father (Rom. 4:11, 16). He does not qualify this relationship by saying, for example, that we can think of ourselves as if we were children of Abraham, or that we might find it helpful to draw an analogy between ourselves and those who are Abraham’s children, or anything like that. He asserts a fact: those who have put their faith in Jesus for salvation are Abraham’s children and the Israel of God.
Peter brings us a step even nearer to James. He writes his first letter (1:1) to ‘the exiles of the Dispersion’ and goes on (1:2) to define them as people who know God as the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and who have experienced the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ. Old Testament terms again describe New Testament people; they are God’s exiles of the Dispersion. No adjustment of meaning is made, no compromise with truth, for they are God’s Israel.
James brings these lines of Bible truth together and so sets the scene for his letter. Better than any other description could, the twelve tribes places the church firmly within the pressures and persecutions of this life. We can think of our ancestral tribes in the storm and stress of Egyptian slavery (Ex. 2:23), redeemed by the blood of the lamb (Ex. 12:13), on pilgrimage with God through ‘the great and terrible wilderness’ (Dt. 8:15; cf. Ex. 15:22), battling to enter into what the Lord had promised (Jos. 1:2) and struggling ever after to live in holiness amid the enticements of a pagan environment. These are the experiences through which James would have his readers understand their pilgrim path. They are the Lord’s twelve tribes and they are dispersed throughout a menacing and testing world. Their homeland is elsewhere and they have not yet come to take up their abode there. Their present lot is to feel the weight of life’s pressures, the lure of this world’s temptations and an insidious, ever-present encouragement to conform to the standards of their pagan environment. They are the Lord’s people indeed, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb himself—but not yet home.
James has a name for being the pre-eminently ‘practical’ man among the New Testament writers. It is a true reputation. The scene he has set in verse 1 demands that he address himself in a down-to-earth fashion to people whom he has so firmly placed right in the realities of this earth’s life. So what will he put first? What is the first thing the Lord’s people on earth need to be told?
To find the answer to this question we must, for a moment, stand back from the letter and look at it as a whole. James’ practical letter finds its focus in one set of topics: it is a letter about relationships. He calls us, for example, to care for orphans and widows (1:27), to be impartial in our courtesy and care of others (2:1); he emphasizes the duty of love for our neighbour (2:8), speaking of it as ‘the royal law’; he scorns a profession of faith which fails in love and compassion (2:15–16) and applauds the life that risks itself for the sake of those who are at risk (2:25); he warns against feelings which imperil fellowship (3:14) and words which denigrate a brother (4:11); we are to discharge our honourable debts (5:4), guard our reactions (5:9), minister to the sick (5:14), share with the distressed (5:16) and urgently pursue those who stray from Christ (5:19–20). His letter is quite a catalogue, quite a sustained emphasis on this single set of topics.
But this focus is absent from the whole of the first section of the letter (1:2–25) following upon the opening greeting (1:1), making a most marked contrast. The opening section is all about the individual: the one who lacks wisdom (5), who is not totally committed (7), the brother, poor or rich (9–10), the one who receives the crown (12). The terms of verses 13–14 could not be more individual and personal: I, each, his own desire; and the same is true of the birth described in verse 18. We could continue in the same vein through to verse 25: a self-ward, individual concentration.
James, in fact, puts first the duty of self-care in the things of God. Who would have thought it? The Christian looking after Number One! Yet Paul said the same thing to the elders of the Ephesian church: ‘Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock’ (Acts 20:28)—yourselves first, then all the flock. James writes in the same spirit and to the same point. Before we care for others we must look after ourselves. The ever practical James puts his finger right on the spot. It is all so personal, so self-ward, that it can be faced only in first person terms. In verse 4 he teaches about a path which leads to Christian maturity: before I can lead anyone else along that path or assist a brother or sister caught in life’s toils, I must ask am I on that path myself? Am I holding fast through the testings of life and so growing to maturity? Verse 12 promises a crown to the one who loves God and walks the way of endurance: how can I hold another Christian to such demands unless I am accepting their discipline myself? In verse 18 James uses the illustration of first-fruits. In the agricultural community of Old Covenant days the first of the crop was the Lord’s and specially holy: am I such, notably holy, something special for God? According to verse 25 there is a particular doorway into blessing, through hearing and doing God’s word: is that my daily experience? Am I enjoying the blessing? For I cannot point others this way unless I am walking the road of obedience myself.
It is at these points of priority that James meets us: forget about others for a bit! What is your life with God like?
Jesus is Lord
Just suppose for a moment that this letter was written by James, the brother of the Lord Jesus—not, as we have seen, an extravagant supposition. James loves the word brother. He writes to my brethren (1:2; 2:1, 14; 3:1; 5:12, 19), to brethren (4:11; 5:7, 9, 10) and to my beloved brethren (1:16, 19; 2:5). He expects Christians to think of each other as brothers and sisters (1:9; 2:15; 4:11). But when he writes of one who was in fact a brother within his own family, he calls him the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1).
Seeing the verse this way sharpens our awareness of what early believers thought about the Lord Jesus, and this point can be made irrespective of the identity of the writer. Many agree that the Letter of James is a very early piece of Christian writing. Sufficient time had not yet elapsed for that process, dear to some who write on the incarnation, by which the ‘poetry’ which hailed Jesus as son of God ‘hardened into prose and escalated from a metaphorical son of God to a metaphysical God the Son’. Early as it is, the Letter of James betrays no hesitation on this point, no sense of groping after a new theology or of expressing a doctrinal innovation about Jesus. The words have an assured ring and he uses them as stating something which his worldwide readers will endorse.
We have become accustomed to the standard English translation, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. But the Greek could equally well sustain the rendering ‘a servant of Jesus Christ who is God and Lord’. Commentators tend to step back from this translation though without arguing a case, but we can put it this way: James was a master of the Greek language. James Adamson, for example, writes of his exercising ‘the power of the expert craftsman in language’ and again of ‘the expert classic who wrote the Greek of the Epistle of James’.4 Even, therefore, were it the case that he intended the meaning which the English Versions express—that God and the Lord Jesus are co-owners of their ‘slaves’—yet it cannot have escaped his notice that his words were equally capable of ascribing deity to Jesus. But he did not alter them. Some, today, find themselves satisfied ‘to say … He is “as-if-God” for me’. But there is no ‘as if’ in James: Jesus Christ is the Lord.
The corollary of this divine Lordship is that James is his slave—‘not a term of special humility, nor … to be understood as involving a claim to the rank of a prophet or distinguished leader … simply … to belong to Christ as his worshipper’.
To belong to Christ, to acknowledge him as Lord and God, to worship him—but surely, in addition, a slave is there to serve, to do his lord’s bidding. Like James, Paul saw himself as the slave of Jesus (e.g. Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:10; Phil. 1:1), but he became a slave the day he said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ (Acts 22:10). For though to be the slave of such a Master is a glorious and privileged relationship, it is far from being ornamental. We in turn look up to Jesus: What shall we do, Lord? If we see the letter of James as the inspired reply to this question, then we have the same practical and earthy approach to reading these five chapters that James had in writing them.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (pp. 7–13). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Doriani, D. M. (2007). James. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 3–13). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Guthrie, G. H. (2006). James. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 210–211). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Motyer, J. A. (1985). The message of James: the tests of faith (pp. 23–28). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.