“James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings” – James 1:1
Four men are called James in the New Testament: John’s brother and Zebedee’s son (Mt. 4:21), Alphaeus’ son (Mk. 2:14), the father of Judas (not Iscariot – Lk. 6:16), and Jesus’ brother (Gal. 1:19). Although we don’t know for certain, Jesus’ brother likely wrote the letter in question.
Unlike the disciples who followed Jesus from the beginning of His earthly ministry, James and his brothers didn’t believe Jesus was the Christ (Mk. 6:3; Jn. 7:5), until after the resurrection, when Jesus appeared to James (1 Cor. 15:7). We don’t know the particulars of James’ conversion, but we see the fruit of grace as he became a substantial figure in the early church, a veritable champion of the faith (Acts 12:17, 15:13-21, 21:18; Gal. 1:19, 2:9).
James introduced himself simply as “a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Unlike some church leaders today, he cared nothing for celebrity status. He offered no personal bio, résumé, or credentials. His only claim to fame was the Lordship of Christ. His only boast was in God’s grace. His only concern was for Christ’s glory in His church.
Much has been made over Luther’s assessment of James’ letter as “an epistle of straw.” Apparently, he saw James’ doctrine of faith without works being dead as a rejection of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith apart from works of the Law. Given the immense bondage he’d suffered as an Augustinian monk seeking to justify himself by ecclesiastical laws, however, and in light of the immeasurable liberty he’d experienced by the grace of God who freed him from such bondage, it’s understandable to see his reluctance to accept anything that smacked of legalism. That’s not to excuse his error, but to understand him.
Some have criticized James for not offering more doctrinal content, but his purpose was pastoral, not didactic, that is, he emphasized the practical, living side of righteousness, instead of a purely academic or theoretical discussion. In other words, he contended for a faith that expresses itself in real, everyday considerations: “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” (Jas. 2:15-16, emphasis added).
Many church evangelism programs today have members scampering of the building to collar an unsuspecting neighbor, recite a memorized argument for why the hostage should recite a written prayer and then scamper back to the building to report on the experience. The winner is anyone who gets someone to recite the prayer.
Instead, James would have Christians live our ordinary lives in such a way that we make a daily difference in the ordinary lives of our neighbors, colleagues, classmates, and anyone else with whom we have contact. In other words, witnessing is something we do along the way, not just in programatic events. Righteousness that makes a difference in our lives is what matters to those around us.
By the way, James’ first audience primarily consisted of Jewish Christians who were “dispersed abroad” by the persecution of their faith. They were not living comfortably in gated communities, tweaking their 401(k)s, planning their next vacations, or preparing for retirement. They’d lost most or all their worldly possessions and were living in strange lands with strange customs and were trying to hold onto sanity. So, James pointed them to the only way to remain composed in an irrational world, through joy in Christ, which we’ll get into next time, as the Lord allows.