Survey of the Epistle of James

Survey of James

            James is often referred to as the guide to practical Christian living.  That is to say that it gives us a picture of how we should put in effect the things we have seen, and heard concerning Jesus Christ.  James answers the questions concerning how a Christian should live out Grace in relation to the Law.  James is one of the letters known as the General Epistles.  The General Epistles are sometimes referred to as “Universal” or “Catholic” letters because they are not addressed to a specific church location.  These letters include 1st and 2nd Peter, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John, the letter from Jude (the half-brother of Jesus), and of course James.

Authorship

The author of this epistle identifies himself as James (1:1) and only claims to be “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”.  There are several men named James in the New Testament writings.  We have a need to examine the information available, in these documents, concerning these men to determine the authorship of this jewel of church doctrine we refer to as the Epistle of James.

James: the son of Zebedee and Salome; who is the elder brother of the apostle John.  This James was one of the twelve selected by Jesus to be his closest disciples and his apostles.  He was a fisherman by trade and it appears that he was a partner with the apostle Peter (Matthew 20:20; 27:56). This James, along with John and Peter were a part of the inner circle of the apostles and was privy to events that most of the disciple would not have seen. He was allowed to see: the transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:1; Mark 9:2); the raising of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:37-43); and he was present with Jesus at the prayer and encouragement of Jesus in the garden of gethsemane (Mark 14:33-35).  He was called to be an apostle (Matthew 4:21-22; 10:2; Mark 1:19-20; Luke 6:14; Acts 1:13) by Jesus Christ.  This James and his younger brother John was also referred to as a son of thunder because if their unbridled passion for Jesus (Mark 3:17).  As an apostle he would have been witness to many great things that Jesus had done in his ministry and of the resurrection. However, despite all of the great reasoning that this James might have been the author, there is one thing that excludes the possibility.  The Apostle James was the first Apostle to be martyred in 44 A.D by King Herod (Acts 12:1-2).  This letter is believed to have been written between 45-50 A.D. In addition, the council of Jerusalem concerning the argument of the circumcision of the Gentiles did not occur until Acts chapter 15. So the James mentioned in that passage was not the Apostle James.   

There were a couple of other mentions of different men named James in the New Testament.  These men were only mentioned once and then were lost to obscurity.  It is unlikely that these were the one who wrote such powerful theological addresses as are found in this letter.  No, there is one more James that was there from the beginning, but who was not an apostle.  This James would have had all the knowledge of Jesus’ whole life, death, and resurrection.  He would have been a Jew, and held the respect of the Apostles and the Jews.  This was James the brother of Jesus (half-brother).

James the half-brother of Jesus, although he was present from before the start of Jesus’ public ministry, was not a believer in Jesus as the Son of God until after he was a witness of the resurrected Christ.  In seeing the death of Jesus and then seeing him alive, James became a devout follower of Jesus.  He was the head of the Jerusalem council and was a respected pillar of the church and of the Jewish community.  He would have had the knowledge and understanding in seeing the whole earthly life of Jesus, listening to his teachings, and witnessing the miracles, and the resurrection.  This put him in a unique position to be a teacher and evangelist to the Jews concerning the Hebrew scriptures and how Jesus fulfilled the Law and the prophets.  Even his initial criticisms of Jesus would have been a great witness to the hard-hearted Israelite of the love of God towards them that was revealed in Jesus Christ the Son of God. 

Historical Settings

            At the time of this writing the church was still distinctively Jewish in nature because most of it’s members came from Jewish backgrounds and traditions. The letter suggests a simpler form of hierarchy in the local church.  The church leaders are referred to as elders (5:14) and teachers (3:1).  There is no mention of the soon to develop strife over Gentile circumcision. The Greek term for synagogue is used to designate the gathering place of the church.  Many believe that this letter and the letter to the Galatians are the earliest recovered letters in the New Testament.

            The Jews in Jerusalem were scorned and driven out by persecutions, not from Rome, but from their own kinsman.  Many Jewish believers in Christ would have lost their social status, homes, family ties, access to the temple and suffered economic loss and hardships that come with the inability to make a living because of their persecution.  Many left Jerusalem in order to make a living elsewhere and to escape the persecution. 

Major Themes

The letter is written to these Jews who had scattered abroad (1:1).  They were under severe persecutions and distress.  James writes to encourage them.  He tells them that the trials in which the find themselves in are expected and that they are for their betterment.  James tells them that these trials are being used to mature their faith.  They bring patients in the waiting of the fulfilment of their hope.  He encourages them to seek wisdom from God and that God has not abandoned them.  This is important because they had been ostracized from the religion of their youth and they needed to know that they had not erred.   He shows them in this letter that they have not abandoned God either, instead they have grown closer to God then they could ever imagine.  He also instructs them on how to live in the freedom that God has given them in Jesus Christ and how they should treat one another in order to be pleasing servants of God and his Messiah.

Key Verse: But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves (James 1:22)

Doctrine

James deals with a lot of controversial doctrines.  Even Martin Luther argued as to whether the Epistle of James should be in the Canon of the Bible because of the doctrinal approach that James appears to take.  It is important when we read through the scriptures that we understand that not all scripture is written to everyone.  That is we must pay attention to who the author is addressing his letter to and see what issues they are dealing with.  As in this case James is writing to Jews who have believed on Jesus Christ and are still in the process of dealing with this new way of life.  They came from a rigid system of rituals and prayers that had added to what God actually said and excessively burdened the seeker of God.  Remember Christianity was not a religion, the religion was still Judaism.  In this James unpacks the differences between the works oriented Jewish religion to the works resultant way of Christ.  Many Christians these days would do good to study this book and see how we are to live in obedience, now that we have been freely saved by God in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. 

The Doctrines that James deals with are a living in Christ once you have believed and received this forgiveness, not an earning of salvation through works.  James starts with the doctrine of persecution and it expectancy and the resultant spiritual growth. Then he moves into how to live a sanctified life.  This includes patience, slow to wrath, not rushing to judgement.  James presents the doctrine of humility by not judging other believers by appearance, money, reputation, or prestige.  The secret to this is that we are all servants who serve the same master.  Then James begins a discussion of the doctrine of Works by Faith.  Many confuse this portion to think that James is saying that to have faith you must do these things.  James is not saying that at all, he says that faith has certain works that accompany it as a byproduct. Without works in faith, you do not possess faith.  Because if you believed then you would act a certain way and be obedient to the will of the LORD.  

Then he discusses by example the use of the tongue, the truth of pride and wisdom.  James then tells them that if they were walking in the spirit (faith) then they would not have quarrels amongst the brethren.  So, peace and love in the church is a result of waking by faith.  James’s doctrine for walking in faith is to (1) Submit to God, (2) Resist the devil, (3) Draw close to God and let God draw close to you, (4) Be sincere in your repentance, and (5) Put away pride. James also sets the doctrine of laying on of hands. James urges his readers in the same manner that the author of Hebrews does, “Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God,Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.” (Hebrews 6:1-2)

Outline

  1. Greetings and Encouragement 1:1
  2. Trials 1:2-18
    1. Purpose of Trials 1:2-12
    2. Pedigree of Trials 1:13-15
    3. Purpose of God in Trials 1:16-18
  3. The Word 1:19-27
  4. Christian Conduct 2-5
    1. Partiality 2:1-13
    2. Actions of Faith 2:14-26
    3. The Fire in Tongue 3:1-12
    4. Real Wisdom 3:13-18
    5. Worldliness 4:1-17
    6. Proper Views 5:1-12
    7. Prayer 5:13-18
    8. Conversion of the Erring 5:19-20

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