Summary: First message on James. James’ letter is more a practical paper on corrrect conduct, than a doctrinal discourse. He assumes a knowledge of doctrine (dangerous assumption today!) and urges us to live out the truth.
“It is a bewildering paradox that one-third of all American adults claim to be born again and yet fail to impact our society which becomes sicker and more corrupt by the day. Religion is up but morality is down,” says Chuck Colson. George Gallup reached the same conclusion when he polled the nation in 1984. He said, “Religion is growing in importance among Americans but morality is losing ground.” [Colson and Gallup quoted by John D. Woodbridge in Renewing Your Mind in a Secular World (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), vii]. Ken Blue says there has been a drastic shift in our worldview. We still believe in God but “He has become nonessential to the way we live our lives. We...may be theists in our heads, but we tend to act like secularists in our daily activities.” [Authority to Heal Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1987) 55f].l
The book of James may be the earliest of New Testament writings. Perhaps before any of Paul’s letters or the Gospels were written he was concerned about a Christian worldview. A growing dichotomy between belief and behavior troubled him most.
James’ letter is not primarily a doctrinal discourse, but a practical paper on correct conduct. The name of Jesus appears only twice, and the cross or the resurrection is never mentioned in the epistle. James just assumes that you know doctrine and he concentrates on the importance of living the truth. If you really believe as you should, then you will not behave as you shouldn’t?
I. MEET THE AUTHOR ... v. 1
The author introduces himself simply as “James, a servant of God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He makes no reference to his position or his family relationships. This probably means that he was so prominent the readers would immediately know his identity. At least five New Testament men were named James, though only two of these were well known in the early church —James the son of Zebedee and James the Lord’s brother. James the apostle, brother of John, was beheaded by Herod Agrippa (Acts 12) in 44 AD, probably too early to have written this letter.
Most conservative New Testament scholars believe the author was the half-brother of Jesus, born and raised in the same family. In his younger years he joined his family in thinking his elder brother was a mental case. He was still an unbeliever at the cross because Jesus assigned the care of his mother to a spiritual brother, John. James came to faith when the risen Christ appeared to him personally.
This letter is probably the first piece of literature in the New Testament. James may have introduced himself in such a humble way because he was sick of name-dropping and self-promotion. He refused to indulge in the practice. He attacks phoniness with a vengeance. A fraudulent attitude won’t last long in a study of this book, because James essentially says, “be genuine, or be gone!”
James knew that his more important relation to Jesus was spiritual rather than physical. They shared a physical relationship because they both came from Mary’s womb. Their spiritual relationship was a result of a kinship with the same Father, God.
If James’s epistle was the first NT book written, it may be dated as early as A.D. 45. It has no reference to Gentiles and fits a time when the gospel was just beginning to open to them. The lack of discussion of the controversy over the Jewish insistence on Gentile circumcision is best explained by an early date, probably some time before the Jerusalem Conference of Acts 15.
II. BACKGROUND OF THE LETTER
Those addressed were “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (1:1). These Christian Jews were not centered in one locality but had spread from Jerusalem during the persecution that followed Stephen’s death. James, now the leader of the Jerusalem church, felt responsible for these former “parishioners.” His letter was to instruct them just as he would have if they were still under his care in Jerusalem.
They faced great difficulties. Many were oppressed in their poverty by the wealthy. For some Christianity was becoming a mere formality. The practice of partiality demonstrated a lack of love. Bitterness was reflected in their speech.
Too often there is a gap between what Christians profess or say we believe and what we actually practice. This disparity greatly concerned James. His teachings relate to the practical problems of everyday living. He deals with disappointment and hardship; he insists that we get our priorities ordered. The common sins of the quick temper, the loose tongue, class discrimination, and the tendency to judge others all come in for a sharp look. James even deals with the sin of doing nothing! [Addison J. Eastman, A handful of Pearls, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), 8].3