Summary: Neglected verses set the stage for godly wisdom.
WHAT CAN JAMES TEACH US?
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
“To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
Whenever we read the letters of the New Testament, we are likely to hurry through the opening words treating them as unimportant formal details. Letter introductions in the ancient world usually contained more than mere names. They describe the writer and recipients in ways that provide us with clues about the nature and purpose of the letter. Reading carefully, we will be able to learn something about the writer, about the recipients and about the situation each faced and their abilities to address problems.
James makes it clear that he is writing a letter—not a narrative or a theological treatise. Understanding that this is a letter, we are better equipped to evaluate what is written. When we learn who the recipients are, we will be able to assess their situation and needs as they are addressed in the body of the letter. Because this is a letter, the writer will move rapidly from one subject to the next. Understanding these truths, we will be able to apply more accurately the teaching of the letter to modern readers.
Several questions immediately suggest themselves as I read these introductory words of James’ letter. These questions, when properly answered, may well lead to rich blessings that would be otherwise missed. First, it is appropriate to ask the identity of the writer of this letter. Then, we will want to know whatever we can learn about his life and service among the people of the Lord. We will also want to know to whom the letter was addressed. Are the things included in this letter valuable for us who read it today? Are there instructions we need as we review this letter? These are legitimate and practical questions for everyone reading the letter.
In order to understand more fully the message of James during the coming weeks, I believe it beneficial for us to study carefully these opening words of the letter at this time. Join me, then, in weighing the opening verse of the Book of James. As we consider the words James penned, under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, I urge us to pray, asking the Master to guide us to discover eternal truths to the praise of His glory.
IDENTIFYING JAMES — “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” is the introduction the writer of the letter employs. James (΄Iákōbos, or Jacob) was a common Hebrew name. There are multiple individuals bearing this particular name in the New Testament. Among the individuals bearing this name were James the son of Zebedee [MARK 1:19, 20], one of the Twelve Apostles and brother of the Apostle John, James the son of Alphaeus, who was also one of the Apostle [MATTHEW 10:3], James the Younger [MARK 15:40], James, the father of the Apostle Judas [LUKE 6:16], and James the half-brother of Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph [MATTHEW 13:55].
Determining which of the various individuals wrote this letter is not particularly difficult. Whoever “James” was, he was sufficiently well known that he did not need to identify himself beyond giving his name. James the younger is mentioned in passing, more by reason of the fact that he was the son of Mary, who was present at the crucifixion. And James the father of Judas is named primarily to distinguish his son from Judas Iscariot. This effectively reduces our search for the author to one of three individuals known to us from the New Testament by the name “James.
James, the son of Zebedee, was the first of the Twelve to be martyred for his faith. He was beheaded in 44 A.D. by Herod Agrippa I [ACTS 12:1, 2]. He, together with his brother John, had presumptuous asked the Master for a position of prominence in the Kingdom. They were first cousins to Jesus, their mother being the sister of Mary, and perhaps thought their deserved by virtue of relationship positions of honour.
When they made their request, Jesus gave them what must have been a surprising prophecy concerning their futures. He asked them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised?” Without thinking, they blurted, “We are able.” They Jesus said, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptised, you will be baptised” [MARK 10:35-40]. Indeed, the violent death of James fulfilled the dark prophecy Jesus gave. As an interesting aside, I relate an account by Clement of Alexandria (c. 155 to 220) says that when James went on trial for his life, his steadfast testimony led to the conversion of his accuser who, the story goes, was carried off with him to his execution.