Sunday, September 17, 2023

Flyover Country: James

Paul wrote the majority of New Testament letters. These almost exclusively take the form of one or more persuasive theological arguments buttressed by proofs of various sorts, usually sandwiched between greetings and salutations. Peter’s first epistle follows a similar pattern, as does Hebrews. Others, like Jude and 2 and 3 John, were written with a single evident concern or focus.

James, not so much. He is all over the map.

Don’t get me wrong, James still makes arguments and offers evidence for his position on occasion. But rather than concentrating on one or two themes in response to a question or crisis, James tackles a whole spate of issues that impact basic Christian living.

One Sentence Summary: A Christian living primer for diaspora Jews.

The lack of obvious doctrine in James meant his letter was not held in high esteem for many years, especially by Martin Luther, who vigorously objected to his teaching about the necessity of works to accompany true Christian faith. However, careful reading of James shows he is not at odds with Paul. Chances are Paul’s emphasis on salvation by faith alone had not even been committed to paper when James was written, let alone distributed, and the early chapters of Galatians give no indication any lengthy debate with James on the subject preceded its writing. To the extent a “reconciliation” of James and Paul’s positions on works is even necessary, one can be found here.

Background and Purpose

The author of James is generally held to have been the brother of the Lord Jesus, though John Calvin suggested it was James the son of Alphaeus.

The broad range of topics James tackles becomes more understandable when we take into account that his letter may have predated all of Paul’s writings, probably being written somewhere between AD40 and 45. To some extent when we read James, we are reading someone else’s mail. Though much of what he says applies to all Christians including Gentiles, his target audience was Jews living abroad, a vast group soon to become much vaster when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in AD70. Diaspora Jews far outnumbered their kindred in Palestine even prior to AD70, approximately five million abroad to perhaps one million in Judea. (Scholarly estimates of the population of Judea during this period vary wildly.)

As mentioned, James is not heavily theological. He is concerned with godly living, daily practice consistent with faith, religion that is “pure and undefiled”. He makes few references to the Lord Jesus and only one (possibly) to the Holy Spirit. He mentions the church only once, and that too is debatable. William Yuille writes, “James writes not about the Christian’s creed, but the Christian’s conduct; not about what we believe, but how we should behave.”

Organization and Content

The book breaks neatly into fifteen broad topic areas within which most verses are at least somewhat related to one another, most of which can be framed as commands:

  1. Introduction (1:1)
  2. Think about your trials Christian-ly (1:2-18)
  3. Put into practice what you hear (1:19-27)
  4. Avoid partiality (2:1-13)
  5. Make sure works accompany your profession (2:14-26)
  6. Manage your speech (as much as you can) (3:1-12)
  7. Don't be jealous or ambitious (3:13-18)
  8. Rein in worldly desire (4:1-10)
  9. Avoid public criticism of fellow believers (4:11-12)
  10. Acknowledge God’s sovereignty in life (4:13-17)
  11. ** Interjection: the fate of the rich (5:1-6) **

  12. Be patient in awaiting God’s justice (5:7-11)
  13. Be men and women of your word (5:12)
  14. Value prayer (5:13-18)
  15. Seek the wanderer (5:19-20)

Almost all these sections are instructional. Several different types of argument are used to reinforce James’s directions. Sometimes he relies on declarations of obvious facts (“God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one”), sometimes on logic (“The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law”), sometimes on analogies (“he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror”), and sometimes on paraphrased restatements of the teaching of the OT scriptures (“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble”).

Value to Modern Readers

Though written to Jews, James is a great manual of basic Christian practice. He deals with all the major failures of daily execution that can contribute to the ineffectiveness or outright demolition of a believer’s testimony: independence of God, failure to pray, misuse of the tongue, inconsistent obedience to the Word, showing partiality, selfish ambition and jealousy, and failure to follow through on our promises.

My father thought highly enough of the book to have his children memorize as much of it as we could. He understood its incomparable value to the newly-saved looking for practical spiritual direction. In my estimation, no other writer of the New Testament issues so many commands in such a short space.

If this was necessary in the first century, it is equally necessary today.

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