James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad, greetings (James 1:1).
When you write a letter today, there is a normal format that is followed. If it is a business letter, then you place your name and address at the top, followed by the name and address of the recipient of the letter. Next follows a salutation such as, “Dear Sir.” Finally you move into the body of the letter. The customs of letter writing in the ancient world were only slightly different.
First would come the name of the author.
Then would come the name of the recipients of the letter.
Finally would come a formal greeting.
These three elements, the name of the author, the name of the recipients and the personal salutation, are found in nearly all formal letters of that day. An example is seen in a letter written by Julius Caesar to the Phoenicians:
Gaius Julius Caesar Imperator and high priest, and dictator the second time, to the magistrates, senate and peoples of Sidon, greeting.
James uses much the same type of format in his epistle. He begins with his own name and title:
HIS NAME: James (1:1).
The name James is the Anglicized form of a Hebrew name. It is the name Yakob. We know it as “Jacob.” It was a common name among the Jews of that day. Many had been named after Jacob, the son of Isaac and the father of the Jews. There were two men named James among the twelve disciples of Jesus. He also had a half-brother by the name of James.
And coming to His home town He began teaching them in their synagogue, so that they became astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom, and these miraculous powers? 55 Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” (Matthew 13:54-56).
Mary had been a virgin up to the time when she gave birth to Jesus. But the Scriptures do not teach that she remained a virgin after His birth. To the contrary, we read that Joseph took her to be his wife and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son (Matthew 1:25). The implication is that this situation did not continue after that time. Such a view is supported by the mention of half-brothers of Jesus.
For not even His brothers were believing in Him (John 7:5).
These brothers grew up in the presence of the holy One of Israel. They watched His sinless life, but that proximity did not bring them to faith. It was only when they were confronted with the resurrected Christ that they believed.
HIS TITLE: James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1).
James does not begin this letter by claiming an exalted position for himself. He does not say, “James, the half-brother and good buddy of Jesus...” Instead he introduces himself as the slave of God and of Jesus. As we do not live in a slave culture, we miss some of the impact of such a title. A slave is one who has no rights of his own. All of his rights are held in the hands of his master.
James recognized something vital about Jesus. He recognized that Jesus was more than just the oldest son of Mary. He calls Jesus the Lord. This was the title that the Jews normally reserved for the name of God. They were afraid of taking God’s name in vain, so instead of pronouncing it, they would substitute the term “Lord.” That is what James calls Jesus.
And that is not all. He also calls him “Christ.” This is the Greek version of the Hebrew word “Messiah.” James says that, inasmuch as he is the slave of God, so he is also the slave of the Lord Jesus Christ. Don’t miss this! James is doing nothing less than attributing deity to Jesus.
HIS RECIPIENTS: To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad (1:1).
The Jews had been dispersed abroad. The Assyrians had carried away the ten northern tribes of Israel into captivity in 721 B.C. The Babylonians had later carried the southern tribes into captivity. Over hundreds of years, the Jews had been scattered over the face of the earth. Everywhere you went in the ancient world, you could find communities of Jews. In spite of this, many of them had retained their tribal identity.
· Paul was of the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5).
· Anna was of the tribe of Ashur (Luke 2:36).
· John the Baptist was of the tribe of Levi (Luke 1:5; 1:60).
· Mary and Joseph were both from the tribe of Judah (Matthew 1; Luke 3).
Many of these Israelites had heard the message of the Gospel -- that Jesus had died for sins and had been buried and that He had risen from the dead. Many of these Israelites had come to believe this message. The early church was composed almost entirely of Jews.
But James does not address his letter to the Jews who live in Jerusalem or in the area of Israel. He addresses his letter to the diaspora -- to those Jews who were living in foreign lands. These Jews had heard the message of the gospel and had believed. They had placed their faith in Jesus as their promised Messiah. They had become the first Christians.
Now some problems were arising within the new church. These problems necessitated the writing of this letter. What were these problems that occasioned this epistle?
1. Suffering and Persecution.
These Jews who had come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah were initially persecuted by the Jewish community. Because they were Jewish, they were already socially shunned by the Gentile community. And now they were also cast out of the synagogues and cut off from their families and friends.
2. Partiality to the Wealthy.
The Jews held to a “Prosperity Theology” that taught wealth is a sign of God’s favor. They reasoned that God blesses the good with money and so people who have a lot of money must have a lot of God’s blessings. They reasoned that a man’s spirituality could be judged by his wealth. Because of this, partiality was often shown to those who were rich.
How different was this from the teachings of Jesus! He said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
3. A Lack of Commitment.
It is possible that the teaching of salvation through faith had brought about an “easy believism” theology. There may have been those who declared their faith in Christ but there was nothing in their life to evidence the reality of such faith.
To this end, James teaches the importance of a faith that produces a corresponding action in the life of the believer.
The Jews had a rich spiritual heritage in the possession and the knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures. This gave them a great advantage over Gentile proselytes.
This knowledge, when not balanced with love and humility, led to pride. Such pride was manifested in the desire of many to be teachers and so to lord their exalted position over others.
5. Strife within the Church.
Have you ever seen a church in which strife was completely absent? I haven’t either. The early church was no exception. In this case, the root of the strife within the church was covetousness. These people were guilty of lusting after the possessions of one another.
The Roman Empire was at the peak of its wealth. There had been a period of relative peace and prosperity for the past 75 years. Many of the Christians were failing the prosperity test. They were becoming entangled in the details that accompany wealth. Their attention was being drawn away from the Lord.
Each of these problems can be found in the church today. It is important for you to see this. Our study of the Epistle of James will be designed to accomplish more than merely an appraisal of the situation in the early church. It will be extremely relevant to the church today. The commands that James gives are directed to YOU. They are to be read and studied and understood. And they are to be lived.