One of the most basic and important principles that we must learn and apply in our Bible study can be stated this way: None of the Bible is written to us, but all of the Bible is written for us. That is, there is no single portion of Scripture addressed to Doug Van Meter, or to Brackenhurst Baptist Church, or to anyone reading this, in the 21st century. Nevertheless, though the Bible was written to God’s people living centuries ago in particular historical circumstances, it was all written for believers of all eras.
This principle is of paramount importance as we approach the book of James. There were some unique historical circumstances surrounding the writing of this book, and it was written to a unique historical audience. But, although the book was not written to us, it was all written for us, and God expects us to obey it in its entirety.
James is an intensely practical book. The author leaves us in no doubt as to the kind of obedience that is expected from his readers, and there are few who could read the book without heartfelt conviction. Commentator Douglas Moo writes in his introduction to James,
My first sermon, delivered to a long-suffering professor and four fellow novice preachers, was on James 1:22–25. I thought that James’ emphasis on the need to do the Word was important in a seminary context, where all too easily the Scripture becomes a book to be analysed rather than a message to be obeyed. That the message was needed then is certain; that it is still urgently required is equally certain—and not only in seminaries. All across the world, people are awakening to biblical Christianity. Third world churches are burgeoning, American “evangelicalism” continues to attract much attention, and European Christians are seeing renewal and a new evangelistic concern. Yet the personal and social transformations that should accompany such revival are, very often, sadly lacking. Why is this? Surely one of the main reasons is that the simple plea of James—“do the Word”—is not being heeded. The Bible is being translated, commented on, read, studied, preached and analysed as never before, but it is questionable whether it is being obeyed to a comparable degree.
All this suggests that the message of James is one that we all need to hear—and obey. No profound theologian, James’ genius lies in his profound moral earnestness; in his powerfully simple call for repentance, for action, for a consistent Christian lifestyle. His words need to thrust through our theological debates, our personal preconceptions, our spiritual malaise and set us back on a road to biblical, invigorating, transforming Christianity.
That indeed is my goal in our study of James. It is all well and good to make an affirmation to live the Christian life for the glory of God, but such an affirmation means very little if we do not practically live out the biblical requirements laid upon Christians. The epistle of James, like no other that I can think of, impresses upon us the practicality of our faith. Consider just some of the comments that have been made about this letter.
Herbert F. Stevenson writes of James, “His theme is conduct rather than creed.” Gordon J. Keddie notes, “There is an ethical crispness to James that places the issues relentlessly in the foreground of the mind; James gives a definitive prescription for truly practical Christianity.” Again, Keddie adds that James “is a manual for practical godliness.” John MacArthur observes that “James has been compared to … Proverbs because of its direct, pungent statements on wise living.” Warren Wiersbe gives an interesting statistic: “There are over 50 imperatives in this epistle; James did not suggest, he commanded.” And Derek Tidball summarised it wonderfully: “Here is theology in working man’s clothes.”
It is the practical nature of this epistle which is perhaps one reason that many seem to keep their distance from it. The epistle is tremendously convicting. As Mark Dever has stated, “James is not content with telling us what we want to hear.” Or, as the late James Montgomery Boice writes, “[Since] James is a practical book, how is it that James is not more often read and thought about by Christians? I think the problem is just that. It is practical, too practical in dealing with our own personal shortcomings, errors and sins! And it is so direct that we cannot easily dismiss or escape from James.”
One website that I make a point of visiting daily is fide-o.blogspot.com, a blog devoted to Baptist Reformed Theology. An entry on Tuesday, 16 October 2007, entitled “Pastoral Counselling in Two Easy Words” intrigued me. The entry read:
Anyone who is a Pastor knows that counseling can consume a lot of time. People have problems and they look to us for help and rightly so. Providentially, at our church we have a Pastor who is really gifted in this area and deals with long term counseling situations. However, the other four Pastors have learned a thing of two over the years to help relieve some of the load of Pastor Chris. The following is a video seminar that we have now instituted at our church. Use it wisely. I can verify that it really does work.
Below this entry was an embedded You Tube clip displaying the “video seminar.” I clicked to watch the seminar, and was surprised to find a six-minute skit by comedian Bob Newhart. Newhart plays Dr. Switzer, a psychiatrist who is counselling Catherine Bigman, a young woman who has a fear of being buried alive in a box. Dr. Switzer assures Catherine that his counsel will take no more than five minutes, and invites her to confide her problem to him. When she tells him of her fear, he informs her that he is going to say two words that will help her if she carries them from his office into her life. She pulls out a notepad and pen to jot down the words, and Dr. Switzer leans forward in his chair and says loudly, “Stop it!” Catherine is startled, by Dr. Switzer assures her that the counsel is really very simple to follow: She must stop being afraid of being buried alive in a box and get on with her life. She enumerates several more problems she has and each time his advice is the same: Stop it.
It really is a very funny video clip, and is obviously referenced on fide-o.blogspot.com for its comedic value, but at the same time the advice is rather sound. In essence, it is the same counsel offered by James in his letter. There are times when Christians need to just stop debating what they ought to do and just do it. James is profoundly practical in listing what is expected of a Christian, and we would do well to just do as he says.
My prayer, as we sit under the exposition of this book, is that we will “be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (1:19), and that we will not merely be hearers of the Word but rather doers also. If this be the result then our time will prove to have been well worth the investment.
James: Who Was He?
I am probably in the minority amongst contemporary opinion to maintain that the author of this epistle was “James the son of Alphaeus,” who was one of the Twelve (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). He was also known as “James the less” (Mark 15:40). Most contemporary commentators seem to easily dismiss the possibility that the apostle was the author of this book, but the evidence is quite convincing upon close inspection.
Biblical scholars note that there are as many as five men named James identified in the New Testament. First, there is James the son of Zebedee and brother of John. Second, there is James who was the brother of the apostle Jude (or “Judas … not Iscariot”—John 14:22). Jude (or Judas) is said to have a brother named James in Luke 6:16 and Acts 1:13. Third, Jesus had a half-brother named James (Matthew 13:55). He was the son of Mary and Joseph and was thus related to Jesus by blood. Fourth, there was James the son of Alphaeus, also an apostle. Some believe that “James the son of Alphaeus” and “James the less” were two different individuals, thus naming a fifth James in the New Testament: James the less.
Contemporary commentators further assume that James the half-brother of Jesus is the prominent James in the New Testament. It is argued that he is spoken of in passages such as Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; 1 Corinthians 15:7; Galatians 1:19 and 2:9. It is further assumed that this man was the author of the letter so named, and that he became the pastor-teacher of the Jerusalem church, as recorded in Acts. It is argued that James the son of Zebedee and James the half-brother of Jesus are the only two prominent James’ in the New Testament, and that James the son of Alphaeus, James the brother of Judas, and James the less are mentioned only in passing. And it is concluded from this assumption that only these two prominent men can seriously be considered as authors of the epistle, and since James the son of Zebedee was martyred far too early to be a serious candidate (cf. Acts 12), the only possible man for the job is James the half-brother of Jesus.
Personal study has led me to a very different conclusion. As I understand it, there are no more than four men named James in the New Testament, and possibly only three. Certainly James the son of Zebedee and James the half-brother of Jesus are distinct individuals. (Yes, Mary had other children; she did not live out her life in perpetual virginity.) However, it seems to me that James the son of Alphaeus and James the less are the same man, and there is at least some evidence to suggest that James the son of Alphaeus was also the brother of Jude the apostle.
Close inspection of the biblical evidence indicates that James the son of Alphaeus was in fact a cousin of the Lord Jesus Christ. Since the Bible often identifies cousins and nephews as brothers (Lot, for example, was actually Abraham’s nephew [Genesis 12:5], but is spoken of as his “brother” in Genesis 14:16), it is no stretch of the imagination to assume that “James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19) might actually be a reference to the Lord’s cousin, James the son of Alphaeus. In fact, in the context of Galatians 1, Paul is referencing his various meetings with the other apostles, and it is thus foreign to the context to assume that “James the Lord’s brother” in that passage was not one of the Twelve.
There is little debate that “James the Lord’s brother” was the writer of this epistle and the pastor-teacher of the church in Jerusalem. What can be debated is whether this man was the half-brother of Jesus and thus not a believer during the Lord’s ministry (John 7:5), or whether he was in fact a cousin of the Lord who was one of the Twelve. Whilst there is no doubt that Jesus’ half-brother James eventually came to believe in Him (Acts 1:14), it is my personal conviction that he was not the leader of the Jerusalem church, or the writer of the epistle of James. Rather, James the son of Alphaeus, the apostle, should be identified as the leader in Jerusalem and the author of the letter bearing his name.
What is significant about James, among other things, is that he would have had a peculiar interest in the wellbeing of the Jews who were scattered abroad. Since he was a pastor of a congregation which was primarily Jewish he would have this particular concern. In fact it is very probable that many of the “Jews scattered abroad” (v. 1) had at one time been members of his congregation.
It is also interesting to note that this is very likely the earliest of all of the New Testament epistles. Some date it between 42 and 46 AD, which would place it within the first decade of the New Testament church. This highlights the fact that the church throughout history has always faces the same practical difficulties. And thus this book is highly relevant to us today.
It is significant to notice the title that James gives himself: “a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1). He could have called himself “the Lord’s brother,” but he chose instead to refer to himself as the Lord’s “servant.” It was far more significant to James to be a servant of Christ than it was to be related to Him by blood. Stevenson comments on this appellation: “He delights in this new relationship with his people which the Lord himself established in the proclamation of the gospel (Luke 8:21).” Moo adds that James carried “a certain authority that comes from representing so majestic a master.”
James had learned from his Master the joy and privilege of being His bond slave. In fact, this servanthood placed him in good company. Old Testament saints who are spoken of as the Lord’s “servants” include Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Job, Moses, Joshua, Caleb, David, Isaiah and Daniel. “By taking that title,” notes MacArthur, “James numbered himself with those honoured not by who they were, but whom they served—the living God.”
Jesus: Is This Epistle Christian?
Martin Luther’s dislike of James is well-known amongst biblical scholars. He spoke of James as “a right strawy epistle” which “lacks evangelical character.” Of course, Luther compared the decidedly practical writing of James to the profoundly theological writings of Paul, and approaching James without the works-based background of Roman Catholicism, it is perhaps understandable how he could misunderstand James’ emphasis on works. Though he never actually stated that James was not inspired, it is obvious that Luther found very little profit in reading this epistle. And commentators long before Luther, and many since his time, have been faced with the question of whether James is a truly Christian epistle.
It has been noted by biblical students that Jesus Christ is mentioned by name only twice in James’ entire work (1:1; 2:1). Some who have made this observation have gone on to question whether James is indeed inspired; whether it should be included in the Christian canon of Scripture. I am convinced that this writing is indeed inspired, and that James in fact had a far more solid Christology than many credit him with.
The apostle speaks of himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1). The particular Greek construction used here (when speaking of “Christ” and “God”) is found only one other time in the New Testament, when Paul writes to Titus of “the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). Greek scholars tell us that this construction equates God with Christ. In other words, Paul (in Titus 2:13) and James (in v. 1) are both saying that Jesus Christ is God. And thus, as James speaks throughout his letter of “God” (17 times) or of the “Lord” (at least 13 times in addition to 1:1 and 2:1), he is in fact speaking of Jesus Christ, though he doesn’t use that specific name.
James understood that Jesus did not come to supplant but to supplement the Father. To him, Christianity was not a new religion but rather the fulfilment of old covenant Judaism, and thus Jesus is the revelation of Yahweh in the Old Testament. James wrote early on in the new covenant period, at a time when the church was predominantly Jewish. He wrote as the pastor of the Jewish church in Jerusalem and, as we shall see below, he addressed his letter specifically to Jews. Very possibly, he intended this letter to be read by both Christian and non-Christian Jews, and thus although he was not ashamed of Christ (he did, after all, mention Him twice by name) he was careful to speak more of “God,” whom non-Christian Jews professed to worship, than of Jesus Christ, whom non-Christian Jews rejected. A non-Christian Jew would gladly read of God, and James seeks to make the point that Jesus is God. Thus he is at the same time exhorting Christian Jews in their walk with Christ and evangelising non-Christian Jews.
To James, “Orthodox Judaism” was the same as Christianity. Any Jew who claimed to be orthodox would clearly believe the Old Testament revelation concerning Messiah, and would see that Jesus Christ is indeed Messiah. He understood (unlike so many Christians today) that there was no major cleavage between the Old and the New Testament. Thus, even though he mentions Christ but twice in his five chapters, his writing is nevertheless thoroughly Christian.
In all of this, we learn an important principle: Practical Christianity displays, not merely declares, the name of Christ. The proof is not merely in profession, but also in practice. As Jesus said, “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20). This is a very real problem in South African, and in fact in the Western-influenced church at large. Christ is freely claimed, but there is little practise to verify that claim. Perhaps the time has come for less talk and more walk. The point is illustrated by the following encounter during Jesus’ earthly ministry:
While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.
Indeed, the proof is in the practise, and that is what James is all about. And the more we are committed to the practise the more we will be driven to Christ.
Jews: To Whom Was This Written?
James addresses “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (v. 1). Some Bible translations speak of the twelve tribes “in the Dispersion.” What does James mean by “the Dispersion”? There are a couple of possibilities.
First, “the Dispersion” was a technical term for the scattering abroad of Israel—particularly the ten northern tribes—that took place in the Old Testament. The southern kingdom of Judah (comprising the tribes of Judah and Benjamin) had been conquered and taken captive by the Babylonians, but after 70 years had been permitted to return to their land. The ten northern tribes, however, had been so widely scattered, and so intermingled with foreign nations, that although they were likewise given permission to return to Jerusalem with their brethren, many had so lost their Jewish identity that they did not return. Thus, even in James’ day, the vast majority of descendents from the ten tribes were still scattered outside of Palestine. James could thus be referring to the Jews at large, scattered since Old Testament times.
Second, there had been a dispersion recorded in Acts 8:1 of Christians from Jerusalem: “And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.” Since James was the pastor-teacher of the church in Jerusalem, and since the scattering described in Acts 8 took place from Jerusalem, it is quite plausible that he was in fact writing to Jewish Christians who had been scattered from the holy city to other parts of the Roman world.
Some interpreters have set forth a third possibility, but one that seems unlikely. They suggest, in accordance with the church being called “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16, that James is in fact referencing the entire church in his address. The language, however, seems far more specific than that. He speaks not only of “the twelve tribes” (which might be a reference to the church at large), but of “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad.” This language seems too specifically Jewish to ignore, and thus we should perhaps conclude that he is addressing actual Jews (particularly, though perhaps not exclusively, Jewish believers).
Along with Hebrews and Revelation, James is one of the most Jewish books in the New Testament. In fact, it is quite possible that this may be the most Jewish New Testament book. James mentions such Jewish concepts as the synagogue, orphans and widows, early and latter rain, Elijah, the Lord of hosts, spiritual adultery, etc. He addresses his readers as “brethren” no fewer than 19 times. Clearly, he had a special burden for Jewish believers, and an equally passionate burden for Jewish unbelievers.
Perhaps as unbelieving Jews read or heard of James letter they would be intrigued. After all, much of what James said was what the Old Testament said. Perhaps they would begin to see what Christianity was not a completely new or different religion to Judaism. Perhaps they would begin to listen more carefully, and eventually be led to see that Christianity is indeed the fulfilment of Old Testament Judaism. And thus, as noted above, the epistle might well have acted at once as a letter of encouragement to believers and as a gospel tract of sorts to unbelievers.
Joy: Why Was It Written?
The final question we want to ask in this introductory study is why this book was written. Why does James send “greeting” to these believers (v. 1) and then proceed to write to them what he does? The form of the word “greeting” used here in a particular tense that is used only two other times in the New Testament. It is used in Acts 23:36 of Claudius Lysias sending “greeting” to Felix, and it is used in Acts 15:23 of the very same James who wrote the letter so named, at which point he sent “greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia.” Literally, the term means “to rejoice” or “to be glad” and thus it appears that James was pastorally concerned about the joy of his readers. And he was concerned enough to speak straight.
James understood that being practical was a major key to his readers having joy. If they wanted to be joyful, then they needed to believe God in their trials, to care for the oppressed, to control their tongues, to refuse to fight for position in the church, to be content in an unjust world, to trust and plan within the providence of God, to pray for and help one another and to live out their faith in many other practical ways. And if we want to be joyful, we likewise need to be intensely practical in our walk with Christ.
Yet how often do we commit to being practical, and yet we fail? We commit to trusting God in our trials, but we fail. We commit to care for the oppressed, but we fail. We commit to control our tongue, but we fail. But a glorious thing about failure is that it drives us to Christ. And in reality, that was what James wanted to accomplish. He wanted his readers to flee to Christ. James is a highly convicting book, but it is designed that way because conviction points us to Christ. And so James writes, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (4:10).
MacArthur has summarised it well: “To James the Word was no mere formality; he expected what he wrote to gladden his readers’ hearts by giving them the means to verify the genuineness of their salvation.” Yes, he was concerned that his readers obey Christ, but his concern was far greater than mere ethics. His approach was much like that of Bob Newhart: “Stop it!” He very plainly set forth what he expected of his readers, but not because he was a killjoy. To the contrary, he was so straightforward because he wanted his readers to have joy, and he knew that true joy could only be found in Christ, and in obedience to Christ.
It is one thing to make a commitment before God and before the local church, but our commitment cannot be the source of our joy. The only way to maintain joy is to put some teeth to our commitments, to practically live out that to which we have committed ourselves. James is so beneficial to study because it helps us to do just that. It helps us to put teeth to our commitments and to live in joyful obedience to Christ. As we study this book, may God give us the grace to do just that.