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Who is James and Why are We Reading His Mail?

james-series_new (1)Starting on January 11th, we will begin our preaching and small group series through the book of James. It is a relatively short letter in the New Testament that focuses on teaching believers to live out their faith; we’re calling the series, Reflecting Our Faith  in Action. As we get close to the start, I wanted to introduce you to the letter and see why it is so beneficial for us to study.

Author and Title of the Letter

As with the other General Epistles (1, 2 Peter; 1, 2, 3, John; Jude), James is titled by the author’s name. James addresses the letter with limited detail: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). Most believe James the Just (who was also the brother of Jesus) wrote the letter. The first recorded acknowledgement came by AD 253 by Origen, an early church father and theologian. This James is first identified in Matthew 13:55 as one of Jesus’ brothers, along with Joseph, Simon, and Judas. Initially, James didn’t believe that Jesus was the Christ (John 7:5), yet he seemingly believed after Jesus appeared to him after the resurrection (1 Cor 15:7). James’ presence and leadership in the Jerusalem church throughout Acts, including multiple encounters with Paul regarding Gentile believers and their response to the Law. Jewish historian Josephus records the martyrdom of James the Just; most agree that he died in AD 62.[1]

James’ Audience

James seemingly wrote to Jewish Christians (“the twelve tribes in the Dispersion,” 1:1) in an effort to encourage them through the trials they have encountered since being scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (cf. Acts 8:1-3). James’ tone is uniquely Jewish when compared with other letters in the New Testament, yet it is clearly written to Christians (2:1).

Major Themes of James  

Persevering Through Trials

The letter opens with the call to “count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (1:2)[2] and closes with an exhortation to persevere and to be prayerful until the coming of the Lord (5:7-20). As stated above, James’ audience is clearly enduring persecution and suffering for their faith in Christ. With this as the opening and closing points of the letter, the middle of James is greatly shaped by this theme.

Living Out an Authentic Faith

The most significant theme relates to how one’s faith should be lived out. While James does not teach as much on the content of the gospel, he clearly writes with the gospel as the foundation. James 1:19-27 exhorts us to “be doers of the word” and defines a pure religion as one that demonstrates love and holiness. Much of the rest of the letter addresses the various ways believers should live out their faith authentically. He defines an authentic faith as one that:

  • Does not show partiality among the saints (2:1-13)
  • Is not separated from works demonstrating faith (2:14-26)
  • Seeks to tame the tongue (3:1-12)
  • Demonstrates wisdom through their living (3:13-18)
  • Does not generate strife in the body (4:1-12)
  • Rightly recognizes God’s sovereignty (4:13-17)

James concludes the letter with a warning against those who fail to live out their faith authentically (5:1-6) before giving a final exhortation of perseverance to the saints (5:7-20).

Caring for the Poor and Oppressed

The situation facing James’ audience was seemingly grim and difficult. Having been ostracized from their home city, they were caused to find fellowship among the saints in Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19-21). The result was harsh conditions for them that prompted James to write this letter of encouragement whereby the topic of how to treat brothers and sisters faced with such circumstances is raised.[3] James makes multiple references regarding the necessity of caring for the poor for those claiming to have faith in Christ (1:27; 2:15-16). As was learned through studying Amos, God’s heart for the lowly is evident throughout Scripture.[4]

Significance For Us

James is a highly practical and applicable book. It has, in fact, the highest percentage of imperatives than any other book in the New Testament.[5] James gives clear instruction for what a life lived out should be. Yet, the temptation is for us to remove such instruction and exhortation from the rootedness in the gospel. It is integral as we begin this study that we understand that for James- and all the biblical authors- the life to which we are called to is impossible without the grace of God. While James does in fact set the bar quite high for what ‘pure religion’ looks like, none of it is possible were it not for the work of the pure and holy Savior. Without Christ, James knew full well that he and anyone without faith in Christ would remain severed from God. Let us build upon our understanding of the gospel as we learn from James how we can endure our lives in our own period of scatteredness, awaiting the return of Christ and faithfully seeking to live out the faith we’ve been given.

[1] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.1

[2] James 1:2-18 speaks significantly to this topic.

[3] James 1:2-4, 12; 2:6-7; 5:4-11.

[4] For a few examples, read Deuteronomy 14-15; Psalms 9; 72; 145; Isaiah 10:1-3, 41:7-8; Luke 4:18.

[5] Cf. http://overviewbible.com/the-bossiest-books-of-the-bible/. Accessed December 19, 2014.

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