The book of James is possibly the first New Testament epistle. Many believe the book was written as a rebuttal to Paul's message of hyper-grace and see James as the antithesis of antinomianism, a doctrine mistakenly attributed to the Apostle Paul. Antinomianism is basically the belief that once salvation is secured by faith, believers are exempt from any moral obligations of the law. Paul did not teach this, in fact, Paul clearly taught against this idea: Romans 6:1-2 - What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
This epistle cannot be a rebuttal to the teachings of Paul because in Acts 15 we see the Jeruslem council headed up by James concluding Gentile believers were not required to observe Jewish Law.
Who is James – General consensus is James was the half brother of Jesus. A very small number of people attribute this writing to the Apostle James the son of Zebedee, the brother of the John. This James was martyred early in the life of the church. According to Acts, James the brother of Jesus was the leader of the church in Jerusalem.
Clement, a first century contemporary of Peter and Paul named James the brother of Jesus as the “bishop of bishop's, the bishop over Jerusalem.” We find Clement mentioned by name in the book of Philippians: Philppians 4:3 Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Jude mentions that he is a brother of James in the opening line of his epistle and we find a list of Jesus' brothers in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, we see a list of Jesus' brothers with both James and Jude mentioned. Interestingly, James' name is realy Jacob, but anglicized by the tranlators of the KJV.
The salutation is written specifically to the 12 tribes of Israel in the dispersion. The dispersion took place shortly after the stoning of Stephen. Acts 8 mentions the scattering of the Jewish believers. Peter's epistles were also directed to the scattered Jewish believers and also dealt with some of the same themes as James. There are some who believe the epistle is written to Tribulation saints due to the mentioning of the 12 tribes. We do not see a complete mentioning of the 12 tribes of Israel after the Babylonian captivity until the 144,000 Jewish evangelists drawn from the 12 tribes found in Revelation. The parallels to Matthew 25 also lead some to this conclusion. We will look at these parallels as we look at James' instructions for taking care of the poor.
Though many misinterprate the purpose of this epistle, the generel purpose is to show how beleivers ought to behave in response to salvation.
- V. 1 – As stated above, James is writing specifically to the believing Jews dispersed among the Gentile nations. In the first century, the dispersion was a factor of 2 events. First, the Jews who remained abroad after the Babylonian captivity but maintained their faith and observed the holy days in Jerusalem. On the day of Pentecost, many of these foreign Jews became believers and went back home with their new faith. The other factor of the dispersion was after the stoning of Stephen, many believing Jews fled Jerusalem for fear of the Jewish leaders. I believe this letter is written primarily to the first group while Peter seemed to be writing primarily to the second group.
- v. 2-3 – By the nature of these Jews professing faith in Jesus, they became double outcasts in their homeland. Already, they were excluded from much of public life because they were faithful Jews living in pagan cultures and now, upon returning home, they would have no longer been accepted in their Jewish communities. Sadly, much of the persecutions experienced by these new converts would come from friends and family.
As believers, we are living in a world governed by a philosophy opposite of what we are called to live by. We are called to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us and to put others first. Often the others we are called to put first are people who are opposed to what we believe and people who, in a worldly sense, add no value to our lives. By nature of our living in opposition to this world's methodology, we often find ourselves facing hardships that unbelievers do not normally encounter. These hardships serve as trials. What does a trial hope to accomplish – it proves or disproves a matter. In our case, it hopefully proves our faith and as verse 3 indicates, creates steadfastness. The word for trial is pirasmos meaning to put to proof and the word for steadfastness is hupamone meaning hopeful constancy. So the idea we get is that we will suffer hardship as a method of proving our salvation and teaching us a constancy of faithfulness regardless of our circumstances.
When we learn of a man who is able to look over the rail of a ship at the depths where his children lie at the bottom of the ocean and he is able to pen the hymn It Is Well With My Soul we meet a man who has been proven through hardship and found constant in faithfulness. This is the kind of faith we want to find in ourselves.