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The Epistle of James is accepted generally to have been written by the brother of the Lord (Mt 13.55; Mk 6.3; Gal 1.19). He was one of those brothers of the Lord who did not believe on Him: "For neither did his brethren believe in him"(Jn 7.5). It is written of Him and his brethren: "And when his friends (relatives) heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself" (Mk 3.21). That they did believe after the resurrection would appear to be the significance of Acts 1.14: "These all continued with one accord in prayer with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brethren". James then became one of the leading brethren in the assembly in Jerusalem. He is called an apostle by Paul (Gal 1.19) in the sense that Barnabus is in Acts 14.14. If this is the correct view, Jude was also a son of Mary because he is a brother of James (Jude v.1; Mt 13.55).
It is remarkable that in the opening verse of the epistle he describes himself like this: "James, a (bond) servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ". Prior to the resurrection he did not believe on the Lord, but now he speaks of himself as a bondslave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Notice that the language suggests an acceptance of the Lordship of the Lord Jesus Christ and His equality with God. What an amazing change since his conversion.
The Time of Writing
The time of writing is uncertain, but it appears to be one of the earliest of the New Testament epistles. The reading of the letter makes it clear that it belongs to a transitional period, and has a certain Jewish background. It compares remarkably with Peters first epistle and also with the Lords Sermon on the Mount. Because of its Jewish background and the fact that it belongs to the transitional period in the early days of church history there is no development of our spiritual blessings in Christ in the heavenlies.
As we study this epistle it is most important to keep in mind those to whom James is writing: "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad [or more accurately in the Dispersion]" (1.1). It is of value to consider Jacobs blessing of the twelve tribes in Genesis 49 with this epistle.
It is remarkable that he writes to the twelve tribes. The rift between the ten tribes and the two tribes from the days of Rehoboam had not yet been healed, but both Paul and James never lose sight of the future day when they will be re-united. Even today God takes account of those twelve tribes.
The Lord Jesus Himself looked forward to the day when that breach will be healed. He said to the twelve that when He would sit as the Son of Man upon the throne of His glory they also would sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Mt 19.28). Remember, too, that in Revelation 7 the apostle John directs our attention to the future sealing of a number from each of the twelve tribes in those tribulation days. Again, the apostle Paul in his defence before Agrippa, like James, takes account of those twelve tribes. Thus he said in Acts 26.7, "Unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come".
But James not only speaks of the twelve tribes, he speaks of the twelve tribes scattered abroad, or better the twelve tribes in the Dispersion. Notice that this word occurs three times in our New Testament. It refers to those Jews who were dispersed since the Babylonian captivity - only a small proportion returned from exile in Babylon. The Jews were speaking of this Dispersion when they said concerning the Lord in John 7.35: "Will he go unto the dispersed among the Gentiles, and teach the Gentiles?". Peter in 1 Peter 1 similarly writes "to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus " or better, "to the sojourners of the Dispersion". It is important to notice that when Peter writes he writes to the elect of the Dispersion - those who were elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. James by way of contrast speaks, like Paul before Agrippa, only of the twelve tribes in the Dispersion; he makes no reference to the elect. In that connection it appears that some of the language employed by James in this epistle could not be applied to Christians. He writes of course, to Jewish believers who were loyal to Christ, addressing them 15 times in the letter as "brethren", or "my brethren", and sometimes as his "beloved brethren". But in chs. 4 and 5 we have language like this: "Ye adulterers" (4.4); "Cleanse your hands, ye sinners" (4.8); "Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl" (5.1). Could it be that James is also addressing himself to unconverted Jews who nationally professed a loyalty to God, but not to Christ? Could it be that this letter would be given to Jews of the Dispersion who on occasions found themselves in Jerusalem, and perhaps some of the Dispersion who were returned to Jerusalem?
The Outline of the Epistle
The epistle covers five areas of Christian conduct which need to be developed despite the problems and difficulties with which the recipients of the epistle were faced. It should be observed that difficult circumstances are not to be used as an excuse for a low standard of Christian life. Such behaviour is dishonouring to the Lord, signifying that the resources available to the believer are insufficient to meet the demands of service.
Chapter 1, the subject of which is wisdom and trials, commences with the strange exhortation to "count it all joy" when they are enduring trials. The joy is not because of the circumstances of the trial, but because of the effect that it has on the believer. Testing from the Lord and temptation from the devil are both dealt with. God will test but cannot tempt the believer to do evil. To deal with both of these circumstances spiritually will produce Christian maturity.
Chapter 2, the subject of which is works and faith, commences with the problem of partiality being shown to believers who are rich. This leads to teaching regarding the necessity for works in the lives of those who profess to be saved, proving the reality of their profession. If there are no works then there is no faith and the profession is not real. The example of Abraham and Rahab are used; Abrahams offering up of Isaac, and Rahabs reception of the spies being works which confirmed the faith of both.
Chapter 3 is concerned with words and danger. The danger is that which is the result of the wrong use of words. Although teachers are primarily in mind, the principles involved are true of all speech. Words can be used for good or can cause needless trouble and friction. As with trials, so with words, wisdom is required in the use of them.
Chapter 4 deals with wars and worldliness. It is clear that peace did not reign amongst the saints and that the cause was worldly desires for gain. In the planning of life, and in the pursuit of their objectives, there were those who left the Lord out of their reckoning, and thus the words, "If the Lord will", were not heard from their lips.
Chapter 5 addresses the problem of waiting and caring. There were masters who were not believers, and they were oppressing their servants, making life very difficult for many of the Christians. The response from believing servants was to be patient (vv.7,8,11), knowing that "the coming of the Lord draweth nigh" (v.8).
This epistle, although one of the earliest written, is very relevant to the circumstances of the present day. The issues with which the writer deals are easily recognised around us and continue to cause difficulty amongst believers. May all put the teaching of James into practice, so that it can be seen that we are "doers of the word, and not hearers only" (1.22).
(The comments above on "The Writer", "The Time of Writing", and "The Recipients" are based on notes by A. Leckie).