The book of James is not one of the easiest books to study. As is described in this epistle, the chapters of this brief letter provide a mirror, by which we can make adjustments in our attitude and actions. James, the writer, is direct and blunt. He comes across as kind of an “in your face” older, protective brother, watching out for the well being of his siblings. I am writing a short background on these thought-provoking passages, to spur some folks on to study these inspired writings and make them a part of their spiritual formation.
Beginning with James 1:1, we come across a thought-provoking word, that should stir up interest regarding the person who penned The Epistle of James. The word is ‘bondservant’; the English word being translated from the Greek word ‘doulos’. This word has behind it the idea of a person who is choosing to be a slave. According to conservative estimates, James’ letter was written between 45-50 A.D. This is a reliable range of dates, for if Jesus’ half brother is truly the author, which most scholars would concur to be the case, then he must have penned it prior to his death, in 62 A.D. To choose to be a slave seems ridiculous, yet slavery at the time this epistle was penned does not perfectly equate to the form of slavery we hold in our thought processes, conditioned by our modern pre-conceptions.
It is thought that perhaps as many as 50% of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves. A significant percentage were slaves by choice. People, at times, would sell themselves into slavery to pay off debt. Some slaves found themselves in favorable situations, serving gracious and benevolent masters. In some cases, they may have married. Often they married another slave under the authority of the master’s household, and this union frequently produced children. As the slave approached the end of his servitude, he may have found himself in a bit of a quandary. Does he want to leave the life he has built within his master’s household? Perhaps not. His other option would be, through public ceremony, to declare his devotion to his master and his intention to willfully serve as a slave in the master’s household, for the remainder of his days.
Interesting that James uses this term to describe his relationship to his half brother. The term gives us more than a glimpse of the transformation that has taken place in the heart of this Jewish man. James, most likely, was the oldest of Jesus’ four younger brothers. As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. Jesus’ family, including James, failed to see Jesus’ calling as the ‘Christ’; perhaps and probably, this is due to living in close quarters with Him. It is hard to see what’s extraordinary in a person, when you grow up rubbing elbows in the ordinary with them. Scripture indicates that Jesus’ brothers did not embrace Him as Messiah until after the Resurrection (John 7:5). After this pivotal event, James addresses the recipients of his letter with a humble designation of himself. Not ‘the half brother of Jesus’, but instead as the ‘bond slave’.
James has been awakened. The resurrection has declared Jesus to be the only begotten Son of God with power. He understands that the identification he has with Christ, profits nothing if based on his earthly sibling relationship. It is his identification of being “in Christ” that matters. He went from unbelieving half brother to passionately devoted slave; fully committed to the cause of Christ. His perspective of course, will form how he pens his letter.
Born in a traditional Jewish family, He would see two different versions of Judaism. He would see Judaism through the eyes of both an unregenerate and regenerate man. He would see that the faith he formerly practiced was a foreshadowing of, and was fulfilled in, the resurrected Christ. James the skeptic, became James the Pillar and Pastor of the Jerusalem Church (Acts 15:13; 1 Corinthians 15:7, Galatians 2:9). This of course would feed his urgency to pen a letter to Jewish Christians, urging them to practice an active and working faith. This within the context of a life lived under the oppressive rule of the Romans, who found this monotheistic religion to be a threat to the Empire.
It is a concrete conclusion that James’ writing was intentioned for a Jewish audience, for it is addressed to the ‘twelve tribes which are scattered abroad’ (James 1:1). This scattering may have been due to the elevated hostility toward the Jews that culminated in the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
James, over the years and prior to the resurrection, had witnessed a counterfeit form of Judaism. A religion of shell and no substance. A faith based on a false sense of security, rather than a relationship with a living Savior. Christ did not die so that people would practice a dead religion. His letter is an exhortation to Jewish Christians to live a passion filled, practical faith. James, like the Apostle Paul, pens a letter that causes self examination and gives his readers a gauge to measure the genuineness of their devotion to God. ”Be doers of the word” (James 1:23) and “I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18). James letter complements the words of Jesus, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in Heaven will enter.” (Matthew 7:21).
There are scholars, who see in the letter of James, material that contradicts the writings of the Apostle Paul. For Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is foundational upon the theme, “The Just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17). Whereas the theme of James’ letter can be found in James 2:17, “Even so, faith, if it has no works, is dead being by itself. A sincere reading of both letters would lead the reader to conclude that these themes, these letters, are complementary, not contradictory. In the eyes of God, the just shall live by faith. In the eyes of man, faith without works is dead.