Setting the Stage for the Study of James

February 11, 2024 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: James

Scripture: James 1:1

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:

This morning, we begin our study of the New Testament book of James. When you read a book, where do you begin? Page one? Or do you read the introductory material? Do you pay attention to the preface or to the table of contents? Or do you skip right over that?

It is tempting to skip over the first verse of James. If we were the original recipients of this book, no doubt we could do that. But for us today, that would be a mistake, because this verse, like so many other introductory verses in the New Testament, gives us some important clues about how we should approach our study of the whole book.[1] This verse sets the stage for our study of James by telling us who the author is and who the audience is. And, putting those two things together, we can already sense something about what the ambition of James is, the purpose for which he writes this book.

‌The Author of James

‌Let’s read the first verse of James again. “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.” So begins the book of James. Book? It is clear that this is primarily a letter written by someone to someone and for specific reasons. The author identifies himself as “James,” obviously a person whom the recipients are familiar with.

‌Which James?

‌So James wrote James. But which James are we talking about? There are at least four different individuals in the New Testament named James. Three of them are mentioned in just one verse. In Acts 1:13 we find the eleven disciples of Jesus gathered together in an upper room. Two of these disciples are named James, and another disciple, Judas, is the son of a man named James. The James who is the father of Judas is only mentioned here and in one other place in the New Testament and only to distinguish this Judas from Judas Iscariot. It is highly unlikely, then, that this is the James we meet in this letter.

‌What about the two disciples of Jesus named James? James the son of Alphaeus is also a minor figure in the New Testament, but the other James certainly is not. He, along with Peter and John, formed something of an inner circle within the disciples of Jesus, and we would not be surprised to find him as the author of a book of the Bible like Peter and John. There is one problem though. This James, according to Acts 12:2, was executed by Herod Agrippa in the early 40s, which is probably a bit too early to date the letter of James. We can safely rule him out as the author.[2]

‌There is only one other James, known in the New Testament, left for us to consider. The Gospels tell us that Jesus had four brothers, and one of them was named James. (The others are identified as Joseph, Simon, and Judas in Matt 13:55.) This James is also known to have been one of the three most influential leaders in the early church, and he was the most prominent leader of the church in Jerusalem from the late 40s until he was martyred in AD 62. It is quite certain that this is the James who wrote this letter.[3] He would be able to identify himself simply as “James” without any further clarification, especially when we consider the audience to whom this letter is addressed.

‌A Servant of His Brother

‌But before we move on to that subject, notice that James does say a little bit more about his identity here in the first verse of his letter. And what he says is as significant as what he does not say. James does not say, “the brother of the Lord Jesus Christ,” even though Paul calls him this in Galatians 1:19. I think that’s what I would have said. Do a little name dropping. But instead, James calls himself simply “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is surely not an attempt by James to be modest; it suggests, rather, that his familial relationship to Jesus was not what gave him any authority in the early church.[4]

‌Now, his relationship with Jesus certainly was considered significant by others in the early church, but for James, he asserts his right to speak authoritatively in this letter not because of that but because he is “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus.” Wow. A servant of his own brother. A servant—this is the same word that is sometimes translated minister—that is how leaders in the early church were identified.[5] It is how they are to be identified today, as well.

A Believer in the Resurrection

Again, though, this is not just a statement of modesty by James, and certainly not an expression of a false humility. It tells us something about early Christianity that we might not notice in our day, so many years later. You see, whenever a messianic movement started to take foot and then was subsequently suppressed by the killing off of the movement’s leader or leaders, those who remained could either give up the cause or find a different way of defining it. Or, they could select a new leader and carry on, and a brother or other close family member was usually the top choice to be the new leader. The early Christians, in the wake of Jesus’s crucifixion, did not choose any of these options. They didn’t even consider that in James they had the perfect candidate to put forward as the new Messiah who would carry on the cause.[6] Instead, they went on proclaiming that the crucified, would-be Messiah Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

‌Why did they do this? Because, you see, after the death of Jesus, they did not believe the movement had ended or that it needed a new leader.

James, and the other three brothers of Jesus, for a long time did not believe that their brother was anything special. They certainly did not believe he was the Messiah. In John 7, we read about their cynical view of their brother, and John tells us that “not even his brothers believed in him” (Jn 7:5). What changed James’s mind? According to 1 Corinthians 15:7, James saw his brother, raised from the dead. Could it be that this is what changed his mind? That this is what made him a believer that his own brother was the long-awaited Messiah who had indeed inaugurated the kingdom of God?

As James himself tells us in his letter, there was no doubt that Jesus was not dead, nor that he was “alive” albeit in a remote, disembodied heaven somewhere. Jesus was raised from the dead, more “alive,” more “human” than anyone could possibly fathom. Alive and well, Jesus was near, “at hand” as James says in James 5:8. If Jesus is indeed the Messiah, and if Jesus is not dead and “in heaven” as we usually think of the place where the dead go, then there are massive implications for our lives right now.

‌The Audience of James

‌And so, James has some things to say. Now, to whom does he say them? The answer is here in verse 1. James writes, “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” What can we learn from this description of the people to whom James has written this letter?

‌First-Century Jews

‌The only natural way to understand this phrase is that James is addressing Jews who lived somewhere other than in the land of Israel.[7] James’s audience are first-century Jewish Christians, and this is important to keep in mind as we read his letter.

That’s not to say that we Gentile Christians have no interest in what James has written. But we need to read it first as a letter to first-century Jews who were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. The story of the Bible is the story of how the Creator God promised to bring salvation to all creation through his chosen people. As Jesus himself put it, “salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4:22).

‌If, then, the Christian message is that in Jesus God has kept his promise, then this means that, in Jesus, God has kept his promises to Israel, to the Jewish people. Christianity, then, is nothing if it is not first of all the completion of the ancient Jewish story we read in the Old Testament. The spread of Christianity to the rest of the nations over the past two millennia has sometimes made us forget this and how important this is for our understanding of who Jesus is and what his story is all about.

Or, some who do see this important point have confused it by forgetting that all the promises to Israel have found their fulfillment in Jesus. That’s what Paul says, quite explicitly in 2 Corinthians 1:20, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus].” So much “end times” speculation that is still quite prevalent in our day among so many Christians, usually revolving around the belief that modern-day Israel is still the place to look for the fulfillment of God’s promises, has to ignore this point. I want to be as charitable as I can when I say this, but I have to say it because it really does matter: if you believe that Israel matters, then spend your time in the Bible looking back at Jesus and what he has already accomplished rather than spending your time in the news of the day concerning modern-day Israel and coming up with another speculation about who the antichrist is and when the rapture is going to happen. (Speaking of the rapture, the one New Testament passage where it is found, 1 Thessalonians 4:17, is not about us being snatched away to heaven but rather about us meeting dead Christians who have been raised from the dead as they return to inherit with us the new creation on earth.)

‌Jews in Exile

‌So, James is writing to first-century Jews in light of what has just happened in the events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth. In particular, he is writing to Jews who are “in the Dispersion,” that is, who do not live in the land of Israel. Why might those Jews be of a particular concern to James?

Because, you see, for Jews to be living somewhere other than in the Promised Land would suggest that perhaps the great promises of God to Israel had not yet been fulfilled. Israel’s exile had not yet ended. This word dispersion occurs in Isaiah 49:6, where God’s promise to Israel, to “the tribes of Jacob,” was that he would “return the dispersion of Israel.” The hope of Israel was that, when the Messiah comes, the exile would finally be over, that the long night of suffering for sin would have met the sunshine of atonement and forgiveness, and, finally, light would begin to shine over all of God’s creation.

In using this term, then, we might expect that James wants to tell his audience about the hope they must hold on to about that coming day of salvation. But he doesn’t do that. He writes instead from a different perspective, again not so much looking ahead as looking back.

‌James 1:18 is a key verse on this point. To the “scattered” Jewish Christians, James says this: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” The significance of firstfruits harkens back to the Jewish feasts of Passover and Pentecost, celebrating the first harvests of barley and wheat every year and anticipating the greater harvests yet to come. It was an anticipation of the day of fulfillment from a place of initial fulfillment. To speak of the scattered Jews as firstfruits suggests that, even though they are scattered and dispersed, they are no longer in exile. Their sins are already forgiven. They are the proof that Israel has been renewed. They are “the representative beginning of God’s new creation of all things.”[8]

‌The Mission of Exile

‌Consequently, although they are living outside the land of Israel, they are right where they are supposed to be. Their “exile” is not a punishment, but a plan.

It may be that Acts 11:19 provides the historical background to the audience to whom James is written:‚Äč

Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.

‌These who were scattered out of Jerusalem fled for their lives, but in doing so, they began to spread the word—the message about Jesus—to the rest of the Jews who were living in places other than Jerusalem. A few began to preach Jesus to non-Jews, “and the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.” And it was this great number of converts who were the first to be called Christians (Acts 11:20-26).

‌This, brothers and sisters, is our story! These are our people, to whom the letter of James was written. And what James taught them is what he also teaches us.

‌The Ambition of James

‌What does James teach us? Anyone who writes a letter is writing to someone for some purpose. What was James’s purpose? Can we see what he is up to? What did he hope to accomplish? What was his ambition?

Practical Theology

The book of James is popular with Christians today, but this hasn’t always been the case. The great Reformer, Martin Luther, called it an “epistle of straw,” and thought it contradicted the gospel of grace that the Apostle Paul taught in his letters. There are very few references to Jesus in this book, and James never mentions the cross of Christ or the resurrection. For Luther (and many Lutherans to this day), this casts a dark shadow of suspicion over giving much attention to the book of James.[9]

What we do find in this book, and one of the reasons it remains so popular, is teaching on many practical subjects like suffering, temptation, prejudice, the power of the tongue, poverty, prayer, and sickness. James is a practical book, but that doesn’t make it any less a theological book. As Douglas Moo says in his commentary on James, “it will be a sad day for the church when such ‘practical divinity’ is not considered ‘theology.’”[10]

Brothers and sisters, let us keep this in mind as we prepare for our study of James. True theology must always be practical theology. If our study of God does not change our lives then we are not really doing theology. Be careful of “Bible studies” that have nothing to do with how you actually live. We aren’t really studying the Bible if our Bible study is not conforming us to Christ. Knowing God means living godly lives.

Pastoral Concern

This is what James is trying to do in his letter. Moo reminds us that the New Testament was written in a transitional period as the first Christians had to figure out what their faith in Christ as the fulfillment of their Old Testament hopes now meant for how they should now live.[11] The New Testament is essentially a re-reading of the Old Testament in light of Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament expectation.

So, James, as a pastor, writes with a pastor’s heart to his fellow Jewish Christians. He wants to help them remain faithful, as Christians, right where they are. He is sure that salvation has come, so to drift away from Jesus would be to wander away into hopelessness. But he is also sure that Christian faithfulness matters because Christians are witnesses of Christ. Of course, the gospel is true whether or not we Christians are good witnesses of it. But God’s purpose is that we be good witnesses of it.

That’s why James is hyper-focused on ethics and the moral life of his Christian audience. He writes with the ambition that the Christians he addresses will not compromise with the ways of the world. “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (Jas 4:4). As Jesus himself taught, no one can serve two masters, so James hopes his letter will help Christians devote themselves wholly to the Lord.[12]

The Wisdom of James

‌Now, don’t dismiss what James aims to teach us by assuming you already know what that must look like. Seems like Christians today assume that they already know the rules, already know what “good Christians” are supposed to do or not do.

But what James gives us is not so much a set of rules to follow. He writes like a sage, who knows the wisdom of Jesus and then does not merely repeat it but, inspired by what Jesus has taught, he reformulates it in his own fresh way.[13] Christians must learn the wisdom of James, built on the wisdom of Jesus himself, and become skilled at applying it to the challenges they face in their own day.

To be sure, this will lead all Christians in every generation toward a counter-cultural way of living. But it’s not as easy as seeing what the world does and then just trying to be as different as possible. This usually just makes Christians weird to the world rather than attractive to the world. But for James, the counter-cultural values he advocates are validated by the faith that these are the values of God’s “rule which is going to prevail universally.”[14]

If James’s ambition is reached among us here at Crosstown, then what we can expect is that, by God’s grace, we will learn together how to be an even more credible gospel community. And the world around us will be drawn to Jesus and toward the kingdom of God that has broken in through his life, death, and resurrection. So, let’s get started with our study of James!‌


[1] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, Second edition, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021), 66.

[2] Scot McKnight, The Letter of James, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 282.

[3] Richard Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, New Testament Readings (New York: Routledge, 1999), 16.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Ibid.

[6] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 562.

[7] Bauckham, James, 14.

[8] Ibid., 105.

[9] Mary Jane Haemig, ed., Pastoral Writings, Volume 4 in The Annotated Luther, ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand, Kirsi I. Stjerna, and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), 16, note 16.

[10] Moo, The Letter of James, 36.

[11] Ibid., 32–33.

[12] Ibid., 62.

[13] Bauckham, James, 82.

[14] Ibid., 104.

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