A Few Thoughts on James
I. Historical Information.
There is some debate about who wrote this letter, but quite frankly there is little debate about. James was a common name in New Testament times, but there are two different James in the Bible that hold the credentials to write a NT book. First there is James the son of Zebedee. He was one of Christ’s disciples and the brother of John. So far he makes a good candidate for our author, however there is one problem… Acts 12:1-2 James was martyred too early to have written this book. That leaves us with the other James, James the half brother of the Lord (Mark 6:3). After Christ’s resurrection James believed in him. Later James would become the pastor of the Church in Jerusalem. This is the James who wrote this letter, and we will see that more as we continue.
Well since James is our author then the letter had to be while James was alive, and since James was martyred in 62 AD the letter had to have been written before then. It was probably written sometime before AD 50 (the Jerusalem council). It was written near the same time as the book of Galatians, probably a little before. James directed his letter toward the Jewish believers of the time, and this makes since because the church was primarily Jewish during its infancy.
In verse 1 we can see that James was writing specifically to Jewish people. This is in keeping with what we know about James. Remember what Galatians 2:7ff says? Just as Paul’s scope of ministry was to the Gentiles, James’ scope of ministry was to the Jews. In effect he was the pastor of a church body that was primarily Jewish. What we will see as we continue our study of the book of James is that these Jewish believers were mainly poor people who were caught in a situation of considerable social tension. They were oppressed and taken advantage of by the wealthy landlords (5:4-6), and taken to court by the rich people (2:6) who also scorned their faith. It also says in verse 1 that they were dispersed abroad. James was writing to Those Jews who were living outside of Palestine. In Acts 11:19 we see why they had dispersed… As a result of the stoning of Stephen many Jewish Christians were scattered, and traveled as far as Phonecia, Cyprus, and Antioch. This was difficult for the young church. As one of the leaders of the Jerusalem church it would have been entirely natural for James to address a pastoral admonition to these believers from his church who had been scattered due to persecution. They had recently accepted Christ, and then their lives became very difficult. James was writing them as their pastor to encourage them to stand firm in their faith against the mindset of the world.
Our discussion on the recipients of the letter really spilled over into the purpose of the letter. James was shepherding his flock with this letter. There were probably a lot of new Jewish Christians who were scratching their head, and wondering what they had gotten themselves into. Many of them probably expected Christ to return immediately, and instead of the second coming they faced persecution. This would have been hard for them, they had no NT and now they were separated from their pastor. James was writing to instruct them on the “now what.” What is interesting is that one of the themes of the book is the second coming of Christ. Throughout his letter James emphasizes the immanent return of Christ. Do you see what James is doing? He does not rebuke his readers for being wrong about the timing of Christ return. Instead he exhorts them to continue to live like Christ could return at any moment, but not to be disappointed when he does not return.
II. Main Themes.
The main theme of the book of James is practical Christian living. James wrote to help his people who were in a new situation with a new faith. James does not write primarily on doctrine in this book; however we will see that all of his practical pleas build off of doctrinal truths. A great example of this is seen in the first 4 verses of the book. James tells his readers to consider it all joy when you face different types of trials. This is a practical plea. His readers were in situations that they may have never been before, and they need to know how to react. They could have been disappointed because instead of Christ’s second coming they had to leave Palestine because of persecution. James encouragement to them was to consider it a joy, why? In short, because it tested their faith and furthered their sanctification. That is the practical side, but the doctrine behind this encouragement is God’s sovereignty. This makes sense, because what you believe will determine how you will live. In the book of James there are three major ideas behind James’ practical pleas: View of God; View of Sin; and the Return of Christ. These themes set the backdrop to the book.
b. View of God.
First a view of God. This is the doctrine that surfaces more than any other in the book of James. In Calvin’s book the institutes of Christian religion Calvin teaches that the knowledge of God is the most important knowledge. If we do not know who God is and what His character is like then we will not even know who we are. If we loose sight of God’s perfection we will lose sight of our sin. In the first chapter of James alone we see that God is generous (1: 5); holy (1:13); source of all good (1:17); and his righteousness is unattainable for men (1:20).
c. View of Sin.
The second doctrinal emphasis is the doctrine of sin. James’ doctrine on sin was built off of his view of God. Often times we see the sin of man contrasted with the character of God (1:20). God’s perfection is the context through which we must view ourselves. James also sees sin as universal (3:2), and resulting in death (1:15). James sees humans as sinful because he views men in light of God.
d. Return of Christ.
The third major doctrinal emphasis is on the return of Christ. Remember the readers of this letter were disappointed because they thought that Christ should have already returned. James does not condemn them for looking forward to the coming of Christ; instead he encourages them to continue to live with the kingdom in mind (1:2; 2:5; 5:7-8). We are to look forward to the immanent return of Christ, but ours is not to know the times or places.
This is the background, and context of the book of James. When you are having a bad day try to remember who God is, your sin, and the coming of Christ. When you have this type of eternal perspective then you will be on the right track.