From the outside, you appear to be a model Christian. Your reading and study of the bible or hearing it taught every week in church have produced in you a certain set of ideas about the Christian life. You can philosophize, theorize, and argue, producing all the right theological and scriptural answers.
But when the storm hits, what will your faith look like? In daily life, how do you respond to pressures and temptations?
James exhorts believers about what true faith looks like in practical terms — how it walks itself out on the street rather than merely in theory — in the hope that they will persevere steadfastly during trials and suffering.
Part 1 of a whole book study series called “True Faith: A Study Through James”
A few things to know before we get into the text.
What is James? It is a general epistle to a scattered church (in the larger rather than the individual or specific sense), intended to provide instruction and exhortation about practical issues in the Christian walk.
Who is James? Though there are commentators who will argue for other possibilities, this letter is predominantly attributed to James, the natural, half-brother of Jesus. Though at first James apparently joined his other brothers in their resistance of Christ’s identity (John 7:5), it is evident he believed later following Christ’s resurrection. He became the leader of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 12:17) and the head of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:13ff; 21:18; Gal. 1:19; 2:9, 12) (derived from R. Kent Hughes, James: Faith That Works).
Who was James written for? The letter is addressed to “the twelve tribes” and describes them as “dispersed abroad” (the word here is diaspora). The reference to “twelve tribes” would certainly have indicated a Jewish audience scattered in the regions outside of Israel. That’s not to say that the people for whom James intended this letter may not have included Gentiles when you take into consideration that at that time, the true people of God were made up of both Jews and Gentiles. However, given the time frame in which most commentators place James’ writing, the church would have been distinctively and primarily Jewish.
Aside from the ethnicity of James’ readers, it is significant to point out that they were probably not wealthy, but for the most part were poor (see below for additional commentary on the socio-political and religious environment of the time). With dark circumstances pressing in around them, as well as their own inclinations to give in to the pressures of worldliness, these believers needed exhortation and encouragement to hold fast to a true faith.
Where was James written? According to Acts 8:1, a great scattering took place as persecution began, but the apostles remained in Jerusalem; as one of them, James probably wrote the letter from there.
When was James written? It is likely James is the oldest book in the New Testament with a date of writing perhaps as early as A.D. 45, prior to the first council at Jerusalem, which is thought to be A.D. 49 or 50. There are arguments as well for dating its writing after the Jerusalem Council since there is no mention of the issue of Gentile circumcision or Sabbath observance (see Ben Witherington, Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews, James and Jude). The thinking is that these issues had already been addressed and there was no reason to bring them up; however, it is equally possible that these issues had not yet arisen, the letter being written prior to the council, and that is why they are not mentioned.
What was the social, political, and religious environment like at this time? Primarily it would have been one of persecution for Jewish Christians by Jewish leaders as well as tension between non-Christian Jews and Jewish Christians (Witherington, Letters). In addition, it was a time of frequent famine in Egypt which in turn led to food shortages in Israel. An intense stratification in economic conditions existed, which meant that a high concentration of wealth lay with a very small percentage of the population (Witherington, Letters). This may have been why James spoke so vehemently against favoritism with regard to the rich, as we will see.
Why was James written? James addresses problems common to a church (the body of believers in Christ) embedded in the world: surrounded by all the distractions, the fleshly appeals, and the self-centered lifestyles. Readers then and today are encouraged to be authentically set apart from the world by a living, active faith in Christ.
Themes: Godly words and actions, avoiding worldliness, patience in trials/suffering, compassion for those in need, a proper perspective on riches, submission to God, authentic faith, true wisdom
The big idea: True faith proves itself not merely in words of profession, but in actions from a pure heart and patient endurance in suffering.
A simple outline:
James 1: Faith Tested in Trials and Temptations
James 2: Faith Tested in Fellowship and Action
James 3: Faith Tested in Words and Wisdom
James 4: Faith Tested in Motives and Godly Submission
James 5: Faith Tested in Prayer and Patience
(This in no way implies that James is simple to outline nor that this is the only way to outline the book!)
With that under our belts, let’s jump in to the first verse.
1James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.
Some fury has often arisen because of this first verse. Why? Because James does not immediately identify himself as the brother of Christ, so perhaps we have reason to believe (the thinking goes) that it is not “that James.” However, I’d argue that James has no reason to identify himself as Christ’s natural brother. What purpose would it serve? In what way would it glorify Christ for James to call attention to himself in such a way? We have seen that Paul alternately does and does not identify himself as an apostle, the former being when his credibility as an apostle is called into question. This was a matter of crucial significance for Paul in his role of Christ-given apostolic authority.
James has no such issue. There is no question in his readers’ minds who this James is. And James does not think of himself as first and foremost the brother of Christ in the flesh. Rather he is a slave to and servant of God. He is mastered by and finds his identity in Jesus Christ. The title he attributes to Christ (kýrios) denotes someone who has absolute ownership of and rights over another (as a master did a slave). This is James’ viewpoint on Christ: not the primacy and priority of his natural relationship, but of his spiritual one.
Greetings to a Scattered People
After he finishes identifying himself, James turns to those whom he intends to address in his letter: believers who do not live in Israel. Peter also greets scattered believers in his first letter, calling his readers “elect exiles of the Dispersion” and going on to name specific places in which they reside (1 Pet. 1:1 ESV). Peter’s word for “exiles” in his greeting points to the idea of these believers being strangers, residing in a country not their own.
This is the idea James gives in his greeting as well, while he specifically identifies his addressees as part of the “twelve tribes.” Again, it is most likely James had Jewish Christians in mind here, although we cannot entirely rule out the possibility of the occasional Gentile believer. In identifying these believers as being “scattered,” James in one word acknowledges the many problems and struggles they must be facing at that moment and prepares to address those things in his writing.