Who was “James” (1.1)? Three different ‘James’ are to be found in the New Testament. But, despite some critics’ reservations, there seems no adequate reason to doubt that the author of this letter is James, a son of Mary and Joseph, and a younger brother of Jesus. The other two ‘James’ are James, son of Zebedee (Mark 1.19) and James, son of Alphaeus (Mark 3.18). As the main leader of the church in Jerusalem, James remained strongly attached to the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. Unlike Paul, he was relating very largely to Jewish people without having to face the ethnic and cultural adjustment to Gentiles. But his Greek is nevertheless excellent – so good that some critics have doubted whether the son of a carpenter could have written this letter! But Peter, as a fisherman, also wrote excellent Greek. The knowledge of the Greek language was wide-spread in Israel in the first century.
Luther dismissed this letter as “an epistle of straw” because it does not major on justification by faith, the heart of the Reformation and Luther’s controversy with the papal church. But Paul would have agreed wholeheartedly with James’ emphasis that faith and works go hand in hand together – ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2.26). And as a former Pharisee Paul would have felt at home with James’ teaching which is so closely related to Torah, the Jewish Law.
“A slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1.1)
This verse could equally well be translated “a slave of Jesus Christ who is God and Lord”. At least it clearly relates Jesus to God the Father and gives him the divine title of ‘Lord’. It also recognizes Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. Of course James had grown up with Jesus, played with him as children and watched him day by day in his everyday life. What a testimony to the glory of Jesus that his younger brother could write of him in such words! My two daughters love their older brother very much, but they would find it very hard to move from love to worship! But the life, teaching and particularly the resurrection of Jesus had convinced even a younger brother.
“Greetings to the twelve tribes which are in diaspora” (1.1)
Sadly, my much admired former Hebrew and Old Testament teacher, Alec Motyer, in his “The Message of James” denies that James is addressing Jewish Christians. With a strong Replacement Theology he asserts that the church is ‘the new Israel’ and the successor to ‘the twelve tribes’. In his Tyndale commentary Moo discusses this idea, but finally rejects it and supports ‘a more literal meaning’. Strangely, Moo observes that by the first century Jews no longer knew which tribe they belonged to (he seems to have forgotten that, for example, the prophetess Anna (Luke 2.36) was “of the tribe of Asher”). He then floats as a possibility that James is addressing Jewish believers who had formerly been in James’ Jerusalem church, but were now scattered abroad (cf. Acts 11.19). So he sees the possibility that James’ epistle was ‘a pastoral letter’. Moo’s conclusions certainly fit the overall character of this epistle and the fact that when it was written the church still held large numbers of Jewish believers. In the twenty first century too we should never forget that the church not only has Jewish roots, but also growing numbers of Jewish Christians.
As with Peter’s readers, so also James is writing to Christians facing “trials of many kinds”. The word ‘trials’ may signify the suffering of persecution or it may denote the everyday difficulties which hit us all. In either case the experience of such trials tests our faith and through them we ‘develop perseverance’ (1.3) and patience. Such patient endurance will surely produce in us the fruit of mature faith which is “complete”. Twice in this verse James uses forms of the Greek ‘telos’ (NIV translates it as ‘finishes’ and ‘mature’)which denotes the ultimate end-time goal which is the great aim of our lives. We eagerly look forward to that fruit of our ‘staying power’, ‘constancy’ and ‘stickability’ (cf. Motyer’s “The Message of Jesus”) which will be ‘complete’ and ‘lacking in nothing’.
We don’t normally think of trials and sufferings as “all joy” (1.2)! But as we consider the wonderful fruit that comes from our faithful endurance and as we look forward to the ultimate glory which our endurance leads to, we may be encouraged and begin to rejoice.