James, the brother of the Lord, wrote a unique “sermon in letter form” to Jewish Christians living in the diaspora., scattered among the surrounding nations. His letter is one of the earliest New Testament books, probably written about twelve to fifteen years after Jesus’ resurrection. He wrote to teach them how to live out their faith in their daily lives.
Every Christian knows that salvation comes by faith in Jesus Christ alone. The apostle Paul tells us that if we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in our heart that God raised Him from the dead, we will be saved. (Romans 10:9) The Letter to the Hebrews reveals how our faith takes us into the very presence of God, to His Throne of Grace, and how we will receive mercy that covers our sins and grace to help in all times of need.
But the author of Hebrews points to another aspect of faith that many Christians overlook. He gives us a glimpse of how faith brings radical change to the way we live our lives in the world. He includes a “roll call” of men and women God recognized as having lived by faith. (Hebrews chapter 11) They not only believed and trusted God; they also obeyed Him through their actions. Abraham left his home and everything that was dear to him, and followed the Lord without knowing where he was going. Others experienced miracles while following God. Yet many others suffered unimaginable persecutions because they chose to follow the Lord in complete obedience. The one thing they all held in common was a willingness to act on their faith by obeying everything God told them to do, trusting God to do what they could not do.
We should study the Book of Hebrews together with the Letter of James in order to understand James’ message. The Book of Hebrews shows us the richness and depth of our salvation. James then reveals to us the power of faith as we obey God in our daily life.
What happens when a person makes the decision to trust Jesus Christ and to follow Him in obedience for the remainder of his or her life? What changes take place in his daily life, and in his relationships? How does our faith as Christians influence our society and our nation’s welfare? The apostle James wrote this letter to explain the relationship of faith and works.
BACKGROUND OF THE LETTER OF JAMES
What kind of literature is James?
James 1:1 clearly states that it is a letter addressed to the “12 tribes which are scattered abroad.” He did not send this letter to one specific church; he sent it to churches composed of Jewish Christians living outside Israel. But this is also a sermon. So I have called it a “sermon in letter form.”
Who wrote the Letter of James?
The author identifies himself as “James, a servant (bondservant) of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (James 1:1) There are many men named James in the New Testament, but there is no proof that any of them wrote this letter. Neither is there proof that James, the brother of Jesus, was the author. But the Early Church of the first century, and nearly all scholars up until the 19th century, all attribute this letter to James the brother of Jesus. Only in the 19th century did some scholars say that their “scholarly evidence convinced them that the letter was written by an unknown person who just used the name James.” Would it not be wise to take the evidence of the Church for 1,900 years?
While Jesus was living, James did not believe his brother was the Savior of the world. But after Jesus rose from the dead, James became a committed follower of the Lord. He was the leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 21:17-18) and was also recognized as the leader of the important Jerusalem Council, which was held in 48-49 A.D. (Acts chapter 15) The council of church leaders met in Jerusalem to decide what non-Jewish people needed to do to become Christians – were they required to follow all of the rituals and rites of the Jewish religion? Or could they become Christians simply by profession of faith in Jesus Christ? Peter, Paul, and Barnabas were present at this council; Peter emphasized that we are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that there is no need for non-Jewish people to be circumcised as the Jews. Then Paul and Barnabas gave their testimony of the mighty works of God among the Gentiles. It was James who concluded, after hearing Peter, Paul and Barnabas’ testimonies, that a person needs only to believe that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, to confess Him as Lord, and to become life-long followers of Jesus, in order to become a Christian. But of course, he concluded, they should abstain from idol worship and sexual immorality, and from eating the blood of animals. The Jerusalem Council unanimously agreed with James, and sent a letter to all the Gentile Christians with the good news.
It is important to remember this historic event while reading the Letter of James. The reason is, James emphasizes in his letter the necessity of doing good works that will reveal our faith in God. But James believed, just as Peter and Paul, that a person needs only to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved. He simply says that good works must accompany our faith for it to be authentic.
James was an apostle – not one of the original 12 apostles, but as Paul tells us in Galatians 1:19, he was an apostle. “I saw none of the other apostles – only James, the Lord’s brother.” James does not refer to himself as an apostle, only as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus.
When was this letter written?
If James the brother of Jesus was the author, it had to be written before 62 A.D., because James was martyred that year. The most likely date is the mid-40’s A.D. This was the same time that Paul was teaching that salvation comes from faith alone and not by works that we do. James agrees with Paul; he simply wants to tell us how to live the Christian life once we are saved.
What was the situation of the original readers of this letter?
- They were Jewish Christians. They met in the Jewish synagogues in their various cities. (James 2:19) They understood the Old Testament.
- They were scattered, just as many ethnic groups are scattered today, in the diaspora. But since this letter was written very early, it is likely that they were scattered because of persecution. “Now those who were scattered after the persecution of Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but Jews only.” (Acts 11:19)
- Many of them were oppressed and were living in poverty. But some of them were rich, and there was conflict between the rich and the poor. James 4:13 speaks of traveling merchants among them. “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit.” Very likely the wealthy class included both Christians and wealthy Jewish landowners. Both seemed to be taking advantage of the poor people among them.
- The dispersed people had a problem with what we might call “worldliness.” We have these same problems in the Church today; but the fact that they were scattered among the nations brought these problems more to light.
What is the purpose of the Letter of James?
The main emphasis seems to be James’ insistence on the necessity of works to complete faith. He makes this point clearly in James 2:17 – “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” He then says, “. . . I will show you my faith by my works.”
James makes his theology very practical. Remember, theology simply means the study of God, seeking to know God. James’ theology is not systematic – that is, he did not teach on the great doctrines of our Lord; the apostle Paul is the one who gives us a rich understanding of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We could say that James gives us “practical theology” (실천신학), so that we can know how our belief in God works out practically in our daily lives.
James was concerned about the people he was writing to. He wrote to encourage them, but also to teach them. His concern was that they would understand God and His purposes in the world, and that they would live their daily lives in a way that revealed that they were putting into practice what they knew about God. He wanted them to have a biblical worldview that they could live by. James knew that his readers knew and believed in the cross and resurrection. His purpose was to talk about the great and radical changes the cross and resurrection make in our lives.
One theme that runs throughout this letter is the need for wholehearted commitment to Jesus Christ. He teaches that one cannot enjoy friendship with the anti-God world and at the same time be a friend of God. (James 4:8) He insists that a Christian must be single-minded; he cannot be double-minded and still be a disciple of Christ.
The apostle Paul would have had no problem with the content of the Letter of James. If he had a problem, he would have written about it in his letters, or spoken about it at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). But Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century (1,500 years after James wrote his letter and 800 years after the New Testament canon was officially decided) had a problem. He called the Letter of James an “epistle of straw!” He said it had many good teachings but did not belong in the New Testament. Why did Luther dislike this letter? Because he misunderstood James’ teaching on the law. The problem was that James was not talking about the Old Testament Mosaic law as necessary for salvation. He was talking about the law that the Holy Spirit writes in our hearts, the law of love. Paul himself speaks of “faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6) Paul certainly agreed with James, and Luther also would have agreed with James if he had understood him.
BEFORE STUDYING THE LETTER OF JAMES . . .
Two Psalms will help us understand the Letter of James. We should read Psalm 15 and Psalm 16 before we begin our study.
Psalm 16 has long been one of my favorite psalms. It speaks of our intimacy with God. He begins by confessing “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from You.” Then he reveals the secret of his intimacy, in verses 8 and 9. “I have set the Lord always before me; because He is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure.” (ESV) He concludes by confessing that in the Lord’s presence there is fullness of joy.
Psalm 16 is a psalm that everyone should meditate on; and those who memorize it will be especially blessed.
But I believe that the Holy Spirit wants us to see the relation of Psalms 15 and 16. King David wrote both psalms, so they do not contradict each other. Psalm 15 begins by asking a question: Lord, who shall abide in Your presence? He answers by saying that only those who walk blamelessly, speak truth, and walk in upright ways can come into His presence. To walk in intimacy with the Lord, a person cannot slander his neighbor, nor can he spread rumors about him. He cannot take bribes and do unrighteous deeds and still expect to see the Lord who is before him.
A person becomes a Christian by professing faith in Jesus Christ, as Savior and Lord; and by committing to follow Him and obey Him for their lifetime. But we learn in Psalm 15, and also in the Letter of James, that our faith must make a radical change in our lifestyle, so that we lead godly lives in the midst of an ungodly world. This is the faith that pleases God (Hebrews 11:6) The apostle Paul says it best, in Philippians 2:14-16. “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.”
AS WE BEGIN OUR STUDY OF THE LETTER OF JAMES . . .
Read the Letter of James several times and ask the Lord to speak to you and help you understand as you read. Expect the Lord to speak to you personally as you read. Make a list of your observations as you read through this letter. Remember, observations are not opinions, or our conclusions about the text. Good questions for observation are: who, what, when, where, how, why? Observations help us understand the general flow of the book, and the main emphases that the author makes.
Then read again Psalms 15 and 16; spend some time meditating on several verses of these two psalms. Then you will be ready to begin your study of the Letter of James.
Look for key verses in the Letter of James that you would like to memorize, so that you can keep them in your mind and heart, to become more filled with God’s Word.
Note: Scripture quotations in English are from the New King James Version (NKJV), unless noted differently.