James 1:1 “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings.”
Dr. J. Gresham Machen, the great champion of Christianity this century, made a daring observation about this letter. He said that it would be valueless if it stood alone. “It does not lay the foundation of Christian faith. But it shows how, upon that foundation, may be built not the wood, hay and stubble of a wordy orthodoxy, but the gold and silver and precious stones of an honest Christian life. This epistle might be misleading if taken by itself; but it becomes salutary if it is understood in its historical connections. Far from disparaging Christian doctrine – as the modern Church is tempted to suppose – it builds upon doctrine. In that it agrees with the whole of the Bible. Christianity, as has been finely said, is a life only because it is a doctrine” (The New Testament, Banner of Truth, 1976, p,238). Let us begin by putting this letter in the context in which and by whom it was written.
1] HOW HAVE PEOPLE LOOKED AT THIS EPISTLE ?
Let’s briefly look at this letter in the history of the Christian church. Martin Luther’s dismissal of it is well know. “A right strawy epistle” he said when he compared it to books like John’s writings and Paul’s letters. Luther loved his Saviour and hungered after the words that said he was justified freely through faith alone in Christ alone because of the grace of God. Luther had one key to Scripture and that was Jesus Christ. But if Luther had had another key, such as the Kingdom of God, then he would have understood more clearly that there is a place in the Bible for exhortations to Christ-like living for those who have benefited from the achievements of Christ himself. Luther’s words are unfortunate because they have suggested that James’s letter is a second-class Scripture rather than affirming its right to be in the Bible as much as the Sermon on the Mount.
In recent times some scholars have dismissed it as a Jewish piece of writing with superficial Christian editing. Others have described it as having the morality of a working class gathering, marked by resentment against the rich, suspicion of the world and a narrow Christianity lacking in Paul’s missionary vision. In James’ letter you meet a people, says Martin Dibelius, who would rather witness the ruin of a rich man than welcome him into the meeting. Here you find Christians proud to be poor, he says, adding that in a world religion humdrum persons of the lower classes must have a place. Well, we can’t all be German professors of theology.
E.C.Blackman a former London University lecturer in an SCM commentary published 40 years ago, sums the letter of James up as “simple things for the ordinary church member who is not interested in theology, has no deep religious experience, and yet feels called to be faithful in that which is least; who ask for no spiritual banquet, but is content with a diet of straw.” One wonders was he reading the same epistle as that found in the New Testament ?
There are certainly many voices to the contrary, and I just quote the contemporary Dr C.E.B.Cranfield, who was professor of theology in Durham University for many years. He said recently that “the message of James is extraordinarily relevant to the Church in Britain in the latter half of the 20th century.” You yourselves can judge this by reading the letter of James itself or these sermons of mine. Is it stuff reflecting unimaginative working class prejudice ? Or is it extraordinarily relevant ? From the reaction of our own congregation there was enthusiastic appreciation for the insights and encouragements a study of James gave us.
2] WHO WAS JAMES THE AUTHOR OF THIS LETTER ?
He calls himself “James a servant (or slave) of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). This probably means he was the brother of Jesus and the leader of the Jerusalem church and council. Four or five men in the NT are called James, and of some we know nothing more than their names. It seems unlikely that the author of this letter could have been the apostle James, the brother of John, because he had been killed around the year 44. The other man called James, the son of Alphaeus, another one of the apostles, is someone we know virtually nothing about. He would scarcely have gained the stature to write such a letter whose very opening word without any self-explanation at all is ‘James’, in so stark and authoritative a manner. He could not have been an obscure Christian who bore a common name.
So this is most likely the man we know to have been the half-brother of our Lord Jesus. The Saviour had a number of brothers and sisters; James was probably the oldest because his name comes first in list of brothers (Matt.13:55ff). These brothers and sisters all came from Mary’s womb, but Joseph was their father. Whereas with Jesus he was begotten without the agency of a human father, by the power of God. Mary was “with child through the Holy Spirit” cp.Matt.1:18. But after that time, Mary and Joseph had children themselves. The very character of Mary and her whole reputation as a godly woman requires it. As John Murray has written:
“Perhaps the most blatant attempt to throw the halo of a false sanctity around this anti-biblical direction of thought ( he is writing about asceticism) is the dogma of the perpetual virginity of virgin Mary. The whole interest of this tenet is the thought that it would be inconsistent with the holiness of the virgin to suppose that she had sexual relations with her husband Joseph after the birth of Jesus. The fact is that biblical holiness would have dictated marital relations with her husband, and to suppose that she did not have such would be a grave reflection upon her character.
“Our high esteem for the character of the virgin as a woman saved by grace and sanctified by the Spirit demands that we deny her perpetual virginity. Perpetual virginity would put her in the category of a wretch, and our respect for her nobility and piety will have none of it. To be a good woman she must have had these normal marital relations, and the most natural and reasonable supposition is that the brothers and sisters of our Lord were the offspring of Mary and Joseph after the birth of Jesus the Christ” (Principles of Conduct, 1957, Tyndale Press, p.66)
So James was Jesus’ half-brother, and he would have known Jesus intimately, would have shared his board and bedroom – “Jesus my older brother.” Like his brothers and sisters he did not initially believe in Jesus though he’d have been conscious of him from his very first memory. James had that earthly Jewish view of Messiah – a conqueror and deliverer (John 7:3-5). There was an occasion when James thought Jesus was going too far and should be restrained. He and his family call Jesus to come out to them in the midst of Jesus’s preaching (Matthew 12:46 ff). The great change begins when after the resurrection. Jesus appears to James personally (I Cor.15:7) The result is that James and his other brothers are with the apostles, the women and his mother in the upper room (Acts 1:14).
James had always been highly intelligent. This second son of a carpenter, raised in the village of Nazareth, had an ear for language and picked up and spoke Greek with a fascinating fluency. One feels no embarrassment at all about this fact. J.C.Ryle read all the extant sermons translated into English of the Welsh preacher Daniel Rowland whose one long ministry was in a tiny Welsh hamlet. Ryle writes, “Even in the thin volume of eight sermons which I have, I find frequent quotations from Chrysostom, Augustine, Ambrose, Bernard, and Theophylact. I find frequent reference to things recorded by Greek and Latin classical writers. I mark such names as Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aeschines, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Carneades. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Nero, the Augean stable, Thersites, and Xantippe, make their appearance here and there … Not one of his contemporaries shows so much reading in his sermons as the curate of Llangeitho” (Christian Leaders of the 18th Century, p.198). James of Nazareth soars as a writer and puts his gifts to the service of the Lord Jesus. He rises in stature through his life. The apostle Paul calls James a pillar of the church (Gals.2:9). When Saul of Tarsus is converted, on his first visit to Jerusalem, he goes to see him (Gals 1:9) and on his last visit to Jerusalem in Acts 21 the apostle Paul goes to see him again. When Peter was rescued from prison he told his friends to tell James (Acts 12:17).
James was the leader in the Jerusalem council described in Acts 15. There were speeches from Peter and Paul, and then James speaks and fully endorses what those two had said supporting them from Scripture. With balanced judgment he counsels the scattered congregations, and they take his advice. A formal letter is sent to every church and the resolution of what could have been a divisive issue becomes an occasion of joy. It was James who proposed the resolution and of putting it to the churches in a brief encyclical. This famous event would have been some years after he had written his only letter. This document had given him standing. It would have been one of the first pieces of New Testament Scripture which the first congregations would have ever received. They would have read it publicly, copied it carefully, and kept it in the same safe cupboard as their copies of the OT scriptures. Then, as Paul’s letters began to reach them, within a matter of months of James’ letter arriving, they would have added to James’s letter Paul’s letters, and Peter’s, and John’s. Then the gospels would have arrived at their congregations too, but James’ letter would have been amongst the first New Covenant writings they had received and would have been known almost by heart by many of them.
James was the chief pastor and preacher of the renowned Jerusalem church. He was allegedly called by them ‘James the Just’ as if he had a widespread reputation for fairness and wisdom. When you read the little letter of Jude, there Jude simply identifies himself as “a brother of James” as though that were enough, James being so loved and esteemed he was happy to live under his brother’s shadow. Around the year 62 Josephus, the Jewish historian, records that James was condemned and stoned at the instance of Ananias the high priest.
So James had a right to make his voice heard. He was not an apostle but was certainly often with Jesus from his baptism, and he did see the Risen Christ. He came from the circle of apostles and what he said had their apostolic authority behind it. He was so well-known and trusted that he needed no special office or title to be read and obeyed. A lesser man would have needed to huff and puff to protest his identity.
James simply calls himself ‘a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ’. What does this tell us of the early church’s view of Christ ? James says he is “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Let us begin with that English translation. It gives a pretty impressive testimony to Christ. Remember this is Jesus’ own brother’s response, who had never known a time without Jesus being around. He has watched him grow up, and seen him under all kinds of domestic pressures. That blameless example always had been before him. Maybe he thought that all older brothers behaved like that. There is certainly no sibling rivalry at all. “I am a servant/slave to my brother” he’s saying. One of the human beings who knew best and longest Jesus of Nazareth freely humbled himself before Him.
But more than that, still taking the N.I.V. translation, in these opening words what is James saying ? “I am a slave of God” Yes. Let all Christians be servants of God throughout their whole lives. But James goes on: “I am a slave of Jesus Christ too.” He puts Jesus alongside God. It reminds you of the grace written by the apostle Paul: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14). Everywhere in the New Testament, wherever you probe it in whatever writer, Jesus of Nazareth has the status of deity. So there was no tension for James in whatever actions he performed as a servant of God and those in which he was a servant of Jesus Christ. In everything he did as a human being he showed his submission equally to God and to Jesus Christ, and to the Holy Spirit. Caring, serving others, acting righteously, kindly – he was serving Father, Spirit and Jesus equally in everything he did. James could not separate them. Serving God and serving Jesus was exactly the same for him, as it is for every Christian. There is scarcely a more powerful testimony to the deity of Jesus than in these words which show James’ judgment of his brother Jesus
Also notice this: he calls him ‘Lord.’ It can mean ‘honoured master’ but it can mean much more – ‘Jehovah’ ! Both are true. Both are necessary for James to be a Christian – for anyone to be a true disciple. We confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, that is, that he is our God. He is the only God there is. We confess that with our mouth, or we write it like James did, that Jesus is Lord, and we believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead. James does that. He serves a living Lord Jesus – not the memory of a dead brother. God lives. Jesus lives too. “I serve them equally,” says James.
Also notice this: he identifies Jesus as the Messiah. He says here so clearly, the “Lord Jesus Christ” The anointed one, long promised from the fall of Adam, testified to by Moses and the prophets, he has come “and he is my brother Jesus” says James.
All this we have gleaned from this translation of the opening words of the letter, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” But it is not necessarily the best translation, in fact many think it is not. It can be translated like this, “a servant of Jesus Christ who is God and Lord.” That is no imposition upon these words in the original Greek and I believe it should be translated like that. If you have any Greek at all – if you use an interlinear New Testament – then look at that phrase in the original. It is so interesting and persuasive. Literally it is, “James of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ a slave”. You have the same construction in other places in the New Testament, in Peter in 2 Peter I:I “our God and Saviour Jesus Christ,” or with Paul in 2 Thess. 1:12 “the grace of our God and Lord Jesus Christ”. Or again in Titus 2:13 “our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.”
This is how James viewed him – that One he had shared a bed with as a boy was the Christ who is God and Jehovah. The One who had comforted him when he fell over and grazed his knees and wept – who put his strong arms around him and held him until his sobs ceased – Jesus his beloved older brother was Christ who is God and Jehovah. When James lost his Daddy and broke his heart at the irreversibleness of death it was brother Jesus – who is God and Lord – who helped him.
So this is the author of this letter. Does not this title give James extraordinary authority ? This man is the servant of the great God and Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. Should you not deal very respectfully with this man and what he has to say ? He scrupulously represents his Lord and Master. All God’s authority lies behind what James says.
So we know that this letter must have been written no later than the early 60’s but it could have been a decade earlier. It goes back to the earliest beginnings of Christianity and it immediately shows us that from the birth of the gospel there was this high Christology.
If you are interested in Christianity then the first step is to learn the facts. The New Testament is a record of events. The gospel is good news about something that has happened. And that ‘something’ is the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ – who he is, and what he did – his life and teaching, his royal death and resurrection, how he influenced people, and what he claims about his relationship with you. He claims that he is your God and judge, and can become your Saviour. People like James and the apostles who knew Jesus expertly and intimately explained this and all its implications to their generation, and then, by what they preserved in their writings, did the same for all following generations throughout human history. The faith of that generation and of subsequent generations was grounded and shaped in the foundation laid by that apostolic circle, in their opinions and what they wrote. So each new generation and new congregation needs to go back to that generation’s writings and learn from them. This is the New Testament. Here is a document which has been brilliantly translated from its Greek original into 4 or 5 five contemporary English versions. The letter itself goes back to the beginnings of Christianity. If you want to know about the Christian religion then this is a letter to help introduce you to what it means to live the Christian life. A real man wrote a real letter to real people to help them live that life with which God is pleased, and that is what these studies in James are all about. This man was Jesus’ brother and he became his devoted servant and the most important thing which he, and every writer of the New Testament, says is that Jesus Christ is God.
3]. TO WHOM WAS THIS LETTER WRITTEN ?
“To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” What does this mean ? Certainly the letter is written exclusively to Christians. It is not a Jewish letter. Its opening words acknowledge that James is a servant of Jesus Christ. The beginning of chapter 2 show the same Christian convictions – “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favouritism.” These readers are awaiting the coming of the Lord, (5:7&8) “Be patient, then brothers, until the Lord’s coming is near.”
James is telling these Christians that they actually are “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” They all knew about the patriarch Jacob having 12 sons and living for 400 years in Egypt by the end of which they were a mighty people. They were divided into 12 tribes each bearing a name of one of Israel’s sons. They were brought into the land of Canaan and settled into it in geographical tribal units. Over the centuries by their own wandering and by the judgment of God many of them were dispersed through the nations of the middle-east. So you have the Jews of the Dispersion as well as those who lived in Palestine.
Now, James is saying, Christians are the real twelve tribes; they are Israel, Jehovah’s people. Paul calls Christians “the Israel of God.” Peter says to them “you are a holy nation, a royal priesthood.” Paul says Christians are “children of Abraham” and that “Abraham is our father.” Paul says to the Philippians in Greece, “we are the circumcision.” Peter writes his first letter to “the exiles of the Dispersion”
So these believers in the Lord Jesus would get this letter and would say two things:-
1] “Oh ! So we are now the twelve tribes. That is our high calling. God is now saying specifically to us, “You only have I known of all the nations in the world.” We are the heirs of the covenants and the promises.” So they would be aware of their status: “we are the 12 tribes. So don’t let us behave as inconsistently as they did.”
2] But they are the twelve tribes scattered . Scattering speaks of persecution, danger, pressures, invasion, attack and battles. Such actions have indeed scattered them. When they read that word ‘scattered’ they thought, “Those Old Testament tribes had to live a holy life even when they were enslaved in Babylon. So do we today. The world threatened them. It menaces us too. We are not home yet. We are strangers in this world looking for our heavenly Canaan.”
So this designation gave them status and comfort, but it also gave them warning. They were the new people of God. The covenant of grace was with them now. It was newly established in the blood of the Messiah. He is their God and Lord Jesus Christ. But the world that hated the Messiah would also hate them.
What James was also doing in referring to them in this way was opening up the Scriptures to them, making them accessible as containing counsel and truth for their benefit. All that was recorded in the Old Testament was to give them hope because they are now the true scattered dispersed Israel. “When you read of Judah and when you read of Benjamin, you are reading about yourselves. Don’t sin as they did or what happened to them will happen to you. God is consistent. Copy their love and trust. God will then bless you.”
But this title “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” would be particularly striking to Christians who had been converted from being Jews. The majority of the first believers had been Jewish. So were the readers of this letter. You become aware of that from a number of evidences
1. the style of writing is wisdom writing, very Old Testament in tone;
2. the Hebrew phrase ‘the Lord Sabaoth’ is left hanging there transliterated directly from Hebrew in 5:4 (translated in NIV ‘the Lord Almighty’);
3. the phrase for meeting place in 2:2 is the word synagogue;
4. James introduces an Old Testament figure like Elijah as a man they were familiar with (5:17). He says “you have heard of Job’s perseverance” (5:11). These were people who knew the Old Testament Scriptures.
So, many of the readers were converted Jewish Christians, men who entered into the stress of the early church concerning accepting converted Gentiles as fellow believers without their having to submit to such Jewish traditions as circumcision and a seventh day Sabbath. We know how that issue almost tore the early church apart.
James was the senior minister in Jerusalem and that congregation would have been overwhelmingly Jewish. Jewish Christians were his chief concern and they numbered tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands pf people. There had been an outbreak of savage persecution: non-Christian Jews were stoning Jewish Christians to death. There was blood lust in the air. Acts 8:1 reads, “On the day Stephen was killed a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Jewish Christians suffered a double blow, persecuted as being Christians by other religionists and by Nero, but also persecuted by their fellow-countrymen as being turncoats and heretics. So we can see why the letter begins with counsels about handling such trials.
These Jewish Christians carried with them the total background and baggage of their religion. We are told about Grecian Jews and Hebraic Jews in the church of the Lord Jesus (Acts 6). We learn of a large number of priests becoming obedient to the faith (Acts 6). We know that certain of the sects of the Pharisees believed, while the priests were generally Sadducees. Perhaps there were even converted Essenes from the Dead Sea community in the early church. One of Jesus’ apostles was Simon a converted Jewish Zealot, while another, Matthew, came from the other end of the political spectrum and was a converted Jewish tax-gatherer working for the Romans. All of these Jews brought a lot of prejudice and misconceptions into the kingdom of God with them. So we are not to think of this group of Jewish Christians as one identikit legalist religionist body.
On Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem Paul meets with James and the elders of the congregation there. He gives them a report of his evangelism and church-planting and they praise God. Then they say these words to Paul in Acts 21:20 “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law…” That is the picture we have to bear in mind when we read this letter. The formalistic Jewish Christian is not going to need warnings about idols and temples and fornication. He needs to be warned about a fascination with keeping the letter of the law in a hundred details, the temptation of position, inordinate love of the teaching office, and debating about teaching, and words without deeds. Here is a primer for Christians converted out of Judaism and facing persecution.
What would you have expected in a letter written by the brother of Jesus ? If we asked him here to speak, what would you want ? There can only be one answer to the question. The professing Christian church today wants anecdotes. It wants reminiscences. It wants stories of Jesus’ childhood, details of the life of Jesus, the resurrection appearance. That is what men want. James could actually have given all of that, but he is totally silent about it all. “What good would it do to you to know about such things ?” he could ask. Men would say that they would feel moved, be touched and feel very happy as a result. “I am sure you would,” James would say, “but would that make you live wiser and godlier lives ? Might it not create an increasing taste for those stories, so that unless you got your shot of them at regular intervals then the Scriptures themselves and their teaching would become flat and wearisome , and you get bored with God Himself and with this whole fascinating enterprise of living a holy and God-honouring life.”
James wants this first generation of Christians to glorify God in what they did day by day, and so it is exactly this letter he writes and sends to them. They had the truth, good doctrine, excellent views of God and Christ. Now what they needed most of all, John Calvin points out in a delightful phrase, were “the goads of exhortation.” This is what they needed, and this is what we need too.
But this letter is not to be thought of as lacking doctrine. James is grappling with great doctrines – you can see that from his opening words “a servant of Jesus Christ who is God and Lord.” What theology ! And when he tells us what is the nature of saving faith, and the way of holiness, and the begetting power of the Word of God, and the final judgment, and law and grace – this writer is no novice in doctrine. But he has totally integrated it into Christian living.
4] CONCLUDING ASSESSMENT ABOUT THIS LETTER.
I would like to able to give a profitable overview of this letter, and show its structure, but I am quite unable to do that in the context of a sermon let me encourage you to obtain a Bible Survey or a good commentary and read their outlines, or better still go through it and write out your own outline of the contents.
James has fine insights into the inner life of human beings, into the well-springs of our behaviour, and his basic concern is to help us become a complete and well-rounded person. See 1:4 “so that you may be mature and complete,” and 3:2, “he is a perfect (complete) man” It is the same word in Greek. James wants us to achieve that, not just outward behaviour, but the inner dynamics that can accomplish consistent Christian living. James tells us how to avoid bad patterns of living, and he informs us how we can replace them with positive and productive ones. Then we become people who resist sin, and our faith is strong, and our prayers are effective, and we can endure trials. Those are James’s aims for us. James wants us to grow up and mature. He says in chapter 1v.4 that “a complete person lacks nothing.” In other words, of all that God wants from us in our lives we will have no lack at all. We shall be able to say, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want” (Psalm 23:1). We too will realise everything God himself requires of us in our lives, and “not lack anything.”
That is why James wrote this letter and that is why we are going to study it. If God wanted us all to be great singers, or live until we are 100, or be beautiful, or have a very high intelligence, or make a million – then through God we would achieve that. We would lack nothing. He would both direct and enable us how to attain those goals. But those are not the ends that God has set in order for a person to be complete. People can attain all those things and be very unfulfilled, immature, hollow men and women.
A complete person is someone whose entire life pleases God. He is a man of integrity, like Job in Job 1, a ‘perfect’ person; or like David in Psalm 101 who was determined to walk with integrity before his family and servants We are seeing here how a spiritually mature person makes progress. It is not that he does not sin, but that he advances, and gets on with his life. He is a grown up, a proper man.
James is writing to people going through trials. Everyone goes through testing times, but not everyone profits from them. They cut short the benefit. They have not been helped by their heart-ache. James wants trials to work for us, to produce endurance in us. That is God’s work for us. Again, in the second half of chapter one James reminds us that all of us are going to hear searching sermons and we will become complete by them – as long as we don’t forget them but put them into practice. Then in the second chapter James says that every Christian is going to meet with very poor people. Are we going to profit from that encounter or not ? He tells us the way to profit and how not to profit, to become complete by that. Then James deals with faith, and how faith can make us mature, by the fruit of the works it displays. Faith by itself, unaccompanied by action, is dead. So on and on, though the letter, how does a complete person tame his tongue ? What sort of wisdom does a complete person have ? James shows us the so-called wisdom of the world and how it leads to every evil practice, but that wisdom that is from above makes a person complete. James is fresh, and his writing is so relevant, and by heeding his words we can become stronger people, complete and mature, lacking nothing. =
Geoff Thomas, June 7 1998