James: A Bird's Eye View
Since 1955 knowledge has doubled every five years; libraries groan with the weight of new books… In fact, our generation possesses more data about the universe and human personality than all previous generations put together. High school graduates today have been exposed to more information about the world than Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza or Benjamin Franklin. In terms of facts alone, neither Moses nor Paul could pass a college entrance exam today.
Yet by everyone’s standards, even with all our knowledge… society today is peopled with a bumper crop of brilliant failures… Men and women educated to earn a living often don’t know anything about handling life itself. Alumni from noted universities have mastered information about a narrow slice of life but couldn’t make it out of the first grade when it comes to living successfully with family and friends.
Let’s face it. Knowledge is not enough to meet life’s problems. We need wisdom, the ability to handle life with skill. [Note 1]
Wisdom. The essential ingredient for one desiring to live a life that is pleasing to God. Not knowledge – wisdom. Knowledge simply makes one arrogant. Wisdom, however, produces humility. Commentator Sid Buzzell explores the true meaning of wisdom in The Bible Knowledge Commentary:
James is often thought of as the “Proverbs” of the New Testament. This is because of its strong emphasis on practicality, its short and direct sentences, and its abundance of little chunks of truth. As we launch our study on the book of James, the New Testament Book of Wisdom, we’ll begin with a bird’s eye view of the whole book and then we’ll delve into a detailed verse-by-verse study of this practical and penetrating “How-To” book on living the Christian life. Hopefully we’ll come away from this study more knowledgable, yes, but more than that, more wise – that is, better able to handle life with skill.
As with most of the New Testament letters, the book of James begins with information concerning the writer of the letter.
The New Testament contains references to five men by the name of James:
So which one wrote this book? Most scholars agree that the man who authored this book was James the brother of Jesus. James the son of Zebedee is ruled out because he was martyred in A.D. 44 which was probably before this book was written. The other three men are much lesser known figures who do not seem to have had the wide-spread recognition or authority evidenced by the writer of this letter. We know from various New Testament passages, however, that the Lord’s half-brother held a widely-known position of authority and respect in the early church. The authoritative tone of the letter tends to point much more to this James as its author than any other man of this name that we know of.
One of the great things about this man that we see right away is his humility. Notice the words he uses to introduce himself to his readers (James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ). Now, notice what he doesn’t say. He was the “brother of God”, so to speak, but he says nothing of it. No name-dropping here. Instead, he chooses to identify himself simply as a “bond-servant of the Lord Jesus Christ”. In addition to his humility, James was a man of prayer. According to Herbert Lockyer, James
Having grown up in the same household as Jesus, James no doubt had been a believer all his life – right? Guess again.
As far as we know, James was not a believer until AFTER the resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-7 Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to James after his resurrection; it’s possible this appearance is what finally convinced James of the truth! (Sounds like a good reason to believe!)
Immediately afterwards we see James being identified with the apostles (see Acts 1:14). Afterwards, we see James described as a prominent leader of the early church in Acts 15, Acts 21, and Galatians 1-2. Based on these accounts, it appears James eventually became the leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem.
Outside the New Testament, James is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus (a non-Christian), who calls him “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ,” and reports that he was much respected even by the Pharisees for his piety and strict observance of the Law. Despite this, his enemies took advantage of an interval between Roman governors in 62 A.D. and had him put to death. His death is also reported by the second-century Christian writer Hegesippus.
Date of Writing
Most scholars place the writing of James in approximately 45-49 A.D. This dating is based upon several factors:
If this dating is correct, James may have been the earliest writing that eventually became part of the New Testament (with the possible exception of Galatians).
Those to whom the letter was originally written are clearly identified at the outset of the letter:
The twelve tribes plainly indicates the letter was written to Jews. (Verses 2:1 and 5:7-8 further indicate these were Christian Jews to whom James was writing.) But “dispersed abroad”? What’s that referring to? There are two general interpretations. Some think that this refers to either one (or both) of the great “dispersions” of the Jews. The first occurred in conjunction with the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles (722 to 586 B.C.) which resulted in Jews being spread throughout ancient Babylon and other eastern countries. The second began about the time of the Greek rise to power under Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C. and resulted in Jews being spread throughout Egypt, northern Africa, Greece, and Rome.
The second interpretation of “dispersed abroad” is that James was writing to Christian Jews who had been forced to flee Jerusalem following the martyrdom of Stephen in 35 A.D. (see Acts 8:1-3). Also, the date of writing places the book of James during the reign of the Emperor Claudius I (41-54 A.D.). We know from history that under his rule the Jews had been persecuted and driven out of Rome and Palestine (see Acts 18:2). Daily persecutions included the boycott of Jewish businesses and the expulsion of Jewish children from schools. In general, it was a tough time to be a Jew, and even a tougher time to be a Jewish Christian.
It’s been said that persecution purifies, but constant suffering crushes. The Jewish Christians of this period had been undergoing constant suffering – and the signs were starting to show. Apparently many Christians, though continuing to claim their faith in Christ, had succumbed to the constant persecution and fallen away from right living. As head of the Jerusalem church, James wrote as a pastor to encourage these people in their suffering and to exhort them to put their words into action.
Trying to outline the book of James is like trying to outline the Proverbs – it’s very difficult. The reason is that the style of James is more of a “punch list” of issues relating to properly living the Christian life than it is a narrative dissertation. James isn’t concerned with explaining the doctrinal basis for the Christian faith (maybe he knew Paul could do a better job of that). His aim is primarily to exhort his readers to living out the Christian faith.
James’ letter is basically a series of exhortations designed to motivate his readers to start living the way they already knew they should. It’s like a coach propping up his team. James was writing to say “Get with it, guys! You say you’re a Christian. Okay, now live like it!”
The central theme of James’ letter is this: Genuine faith will inevitably produce good deeds. In fact, James’ letter focuses so much on doing that some have struggled to reconcile its message with that of Paul who so constantly emphasized salvation by grace and grace alone. (Even Martin Luther, the great reformer of the church, struggled with this for awhile before eventually reconciling it in his own mind.) Does the book of James promote a “salvation by works” mentality? Not at all. Instead, James promotes a salvation accompanied by works as a means of evidencing salvation – not as a means of producing salvation. One commentator summarizes the work of James and Paul this way:
James, in effect, says, “If there’s no smoke coming out of the chimney you’d better check and make sure there’s really a fire in the fireplace.” Good advice.
As already indicated, beyond the overall theme discussed above it’s difficult to produce a tidy summary of the book of James. You could, though, glean the gist of his letter from a passage in the second chapter.
Often people will say “I have faith” or “I believe” or “I’m a Christian” simply because they agree with the premise of Christian teachings. This is intellectual assent – not saving faith as portrayed throughout the scriptures. Authentic Christianity, James says here, transforms our conduct as well as our opinions. If our life remains unchanged then we don’t really believe what we say we believe. It’s that simple.
James drives home his point with an example.
Perhaps some had taken the gospel of grace as proclaimed by Paul and others out of context and misconstrued it to say that what a person does isn’t what’s important – it’s only what a person believes that matters. Nonsense. Paul himself, the great proclaimer of God’s grace, continuously exhorted his readers to the same kind of righteous living as did James – take Romans, for example.
No, James was saying, don’t twist the truth. Faith is what saves you, yes; but let’s be clear on what real faith is and what it is not.
Strong words. Whenever the Bible uses particularly strong language like this it’s wise to stop and take heed.
As we come to the close of this introduction to the book of James, perhaps we’d do well to ponder (and then act upon!) a few personal questions:
1. Haddon Robinson, from the forward to Robert L. Alden’s Proverbs: A Commentary on an Ancient Book of Timeless Advice (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Baker Book House, 1983), p. 7.
2. Sid Buzzell, “Proverbs,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament ed., ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1985), p. 902.
3. Herbert Lockyer, All the Men of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), p. 171.
4. Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary, Copyright © 1984, 1988, 1994 by Houghton Mifflin Company, see “exhort”.
5. J. Ronald Blue, “James,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament edition, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, Ill.: Scripture Press Publications, Victor Books, 1983), p. 816.
6. Charles R. Swindoll, “A Case for Practical Christianity” in the study guide James: Practical and Authentic Living, co-authored by Lee Hough, from the Bible-teaching ministry of Charles R. Swindoll (Fullerton, California: Insight for Living, 1991), pp. 1-7.
7. Robert H. Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, Third Edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), pp. 432-436.
Next Lesson: When the Roots Grow Deep, Part 1