1. Setting the scene (1:1)
If James were to post his letter today it would be marked ‘Return to sender’ on the ground of being insufficiently addressed. He names no names and specifies no place as destination: twelve tribes contain a lot of people and the Dispersion, in its special sense of the scattered people of God, was in principle world-wide.
Yet, at first sight, is any great problem really involved? Twelve tribes reminds us of the Old Testament people of God, the children of the twelve sons of Jacob (e.g. Ex. 1:2–5). Even in the New Testament Paul can still speak of ‘our twelve tribes’ (Acts 26:7), referring to those who can trace their descent back to the twelve patriarchs. Dispersion, too, is a term with a clear meaning. From the time of the return from exile in Babylon, the people of God were in two sections: those who had come back to live in the promised land (e.g. Ezr. 1: ;2:1ff.) and those who remained living among the nations. The latter group were seen as ‘dispersed’ throughout the world, and the word ‘dispersion’ came to be used both of the scattered people and the world-wide area, outside Palestine, where they lived.
But no sooner do we feel our problem is clarifying than fresh difficulties arise. There are two. First, by the time of James, the physical descendants of the people of the Old Testament had long since become ‘the Jews’. James, however, writes as a Christian to Christians. Both he, the writer, and they, the readers, acknowledge Jesus as Lord. James is a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1); they are his ‘brethren’ (1:2) whom he further describes (2:1) as united with himself in ‘the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Secondly, as James sees it, the whole of the twelve tribes are in the Dispersion. The words have lost their characteristic contemporary use among the Jews; they no longer contrast some who are ‘abroad’ with others who are ‘at home’. Every one of the tribes addressed is away from the homeland, dispersed in the world.
We would seem, therefore, to be back in square one! Who are these twelve tribes? To answer this question we must follow another line—the straight line from the Old Testament into the New. Our Lord Jesus chose out twelve apostles (Mk. 3:13–14) and looked forward to the day of his own glory when they would sit on twelve thrones ruling the twelve tribes of Israel (Mt. 19:28). In doing this he was not creating a ‘new’ Israel (either alongside or replacing an ‘old’ Israel); he was leading the Israel of the Old Covenant on into its full, intended reality as the Israel of the New Covenant, the apostolic people of our Lord Jesus Christ, those whom Paul calls ‘the Israel of God’ (Gal. 6:16). In a word, ‘Israel’ is the name of the people of Jesus; it is the true and inalienable title of his church. Because of this Paul teaches that Christians are children of Abraham (Gal. 3:7) and that Abraham is our father (Rom. 4:11, 16). He does not qualify this relationship by saying, for example, that we can think of ourselves as if we were children of Abraham, or that we might find it helpful to draw an analogy between ourselves and those who are Abraham’s children, or anything like that. He asserts a fact: those who have put their faith in Jesus for salvation are Abraham’s children and the Israel of God.
Peter brings us a step even nearer to James. He writes his first letter (1:1) to ‘the exiles of the Dispersion’ and goes on (1:2) to define them as people who know God as the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and who have experienced the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ. Old Testament terms again describe New Testament people; they are God’s exiles of the Dispersion. No adjustment of meaning is made, no compromise with truth, for they are God’s Israel.
James brings these lines of Bible truth together and so sets the scene for his letter. Better than any other description could, the twelve tribes places the church firmly within the pressures and persecutions of this life. We can think of our ancestral tribes in the storm and stress of Egyptian slavery (Ex. 2:23), redeemed by the blood of the lamb (Ex. 12:13), on pilgrimage with God through ‘the great and terrible wilderness’ (Dt. 8:15; cf. Ex. 15:22), battling to enter into what the Lord had promised (Jos. 1:2) and struggling ever after to live in holiness amid the enticements of a pagan environment. These are the experiences through which James would have his readers understand their pilgrim path. They are the Lord’s twelve tribes and they are dispersed throughout a menacing and testing world. Their homeland is elsewhere and they have not yet come to take up their abode there. Their present lot is to feel the weight of life’s pressures, the lure of this world’s temptations and an insidious, ever-present encouragement to conform to the standards of their pagan environment. They are the Lord’s people indeed, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb himself—but not yet home.
James has a name for being the pre-eminently ‘practical’ man among the New Testament writers. It is a true reputation. The scene he has set in verse 1 demands that he address himself in a down-to-earth fashion to people whom he has so firmly placed right in the realities of this earth’s life. So what will he put first? What is the first thing the Lord’s people on earth need to be told?
To find the answer to this question we must, for a moment, stand back from the letter and look at it as a whole. James’ practical letter finds its focus in one set of topics: it is a letter about relationships. He calls us, for example, to care for orphans and widows (1:27), to be impartial in our courtesy and care of others (2:1); he emphasizes the duty of love for our neighbour (2:8), speaking of it as ‘the royal law’; he scorns a profession of faith which fails in love and compassion (2:15–16) and applauds the life that risks itself for the sake of those who are at risk (2:25); he warns against feelings which imperil fellowship (3:14) and words which denigrate a brother (4:11); we are to discharge our honourable debts (5:4), guard our reactions (5:9), minister to the sick (5:14), share with the distressed (5:16) and urgently pursue those who stray from Christ (5:19–20). His letter is quite a catalogue, quite a sustained emphasis on this single set of topics.
But this focus is absent from the whole of the first section of the letter (1:2–25) following upon the opening greeting (1:1), making a most marked contrast. The opening section is all about the individual: the one who lacks wisdom (5), who is not totally committed (7), the brother, poor or rich (9–10), the one who receives the crown (12). The terms of verses 13–14 could not be more individual and personal: I, each, his own desire; and the same is true of the birth described in verse 18. We could continue in the same vein through to verse 25: a self-ward, individual concentration.
James, in fact, puts first the duty of self-care in the things of God. Who would have thought it? The Christian looking after Number One! Yet Paul said the same thing to the elders of the Ephesian church: ‘Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock’ (Acts 20:28)— yourselves first, then all the flock. James writes in the same spirit and to the same point. Before we care for others we must look after ourselves. The ever practical James puts his finger right on the spot. It is all so personal, so self-ward, that it can be faced only in first person terms. In verse 4 he teaches about a path which leads to Christian maturity: before I can lead anyone else along that path or assist a brother or sister caught in life’s toils, I must ask am I on that path myself? Am I holding fast through the testings of life and so growing to maturity? Verse 12 promises a crown to the one who loves God and walks the way of endurance: how can I hold another Christian to such demands unless I am accepting their discipline myself? In verse 18 James uses the illustration of first-fruits. In the agricultural community of Old Covenant days the first of the crop was the Lord’s and specially holy: am I such, notably holy, something special for God? According to verse 25 there is a particular doorway into blessing, through hearing and doing God’s word: is that my daily experience? Am I enjoying the blessing? For I cannot point others this way unless I am walking the road of obedience myself.
It is at these points of priority that James meets us: forget about others for a bit! What is your life with God like?
Jesus is Lord
Just suppose for a moment that this letter was written by James, the brother of the Lord Jesus—not, as we have seen, an extravagant supposition. James loves the word brother. He writes to my brethren (1:2; 2:1, 14; 3:1; 5:12, 19), to brethren (4:11; 5:7, 9, 10) and to my beloved brethren (1:16, 19; 2:5). He expects Christians to think of each other as brothers and sisters (1:9; 2:15; 4:11). But when he writes of one who was in fact a brother within his own family, he calls him the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1).
Seeing the verse this way sharpens our awareness of what early believers thought about the Lord Jesus, and this point can be made irrespective of the identity of the writer. Many agree that the Letter of James is a very early piece of Christian writing. Sufficient time had not yet elapsed for that process, dear to some who write on the incarnation, by which the ‘poetry’ which hailed Jesus as son of God ‘hardened into prose and escalated from a metaphorical son of God to a metaphysical God the Son’. Early as it is, the Letter of James betrays no hesitation on this point, no sense of groping after a new theology or of expressing a doctrinal innovation about Jesus. The words have an assured ring and he uses them as stating something which his worldwide readers will endorse.
We have become accustomed to the standard English translation, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. But the Greek could equally well sustain the rendering ‘a servant of Jesus Christ who is God and Lord’. Commentators tend to step back from this translation though without arguing a case, but we can put it this way: James was a master of the Greek language. James Adamson, for example, writes of his exercising ‘the power of the expert craftsman in language’ and again of ‘the expert classic who wrote the Greek of the Epistle of James’. Even, therefore, were it the case that he intended the meaning which the English Versions express—that God and the Lord Jesus are co-owners of their ‘slaves’—yet it cannot have escaped his notice that his words were equally capable of ascribing deity to Jesus. But he did not alter them. Some, today, find themselves satisfied ‘to say … He is “as-if-God” for me’. But there is no ‘as if’ in James: Jesus Christ is the Lord.
The corollary of this divine Lordship is that James is his slave—‘not a term of special humility, nor … to be understood as involving a claim to the rank of a prophet or distinguished leader … simply … to belong to Christ as his worshipper’.
To belong to Christ, to acknowledge him as Lord and God, to worship him—but surely, in addition, a slave is there to serve, to do his lord’s bidding. Like James, Paul saw himself as the slave of Jesus (e.g. Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:10; Phil. 1:1), but he became a slave the day he said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ (Acts 22:10). For though to be the slave of such a Master is a glorious and privileged relationship, it is far from being ornamental. We in turn look up to Jesus: What shall we do, Lord? If we see the letter of James as the inspired reply to this question, then we have the same practical and earthy approach to reading these five chapters that James had in writing them.
2. The life-giving trial (1:2–4)
The all-too-dedicated mother, the seven-days-a-week parson, the workaholic tycoon can all justify their life-style by saying, ‘My family needs me’, ‘My church needs me’, ‘My business needs me’. But what happens if the end of all this selfless wear and tear is breakdown? The needs of family, church and business remain unaltered, but the indispensable helper is no longer there.
These are not James’ illustrations, but possibly he would not disapprove, for they do point up the balance of teaching which we have seen in his letter. The first priority for the church in the world, under the Lordship of Christ, is that Christians must look after themselves, for the life which issues in the caring ministries of 1:27 is the life which is itself moving forward to maturity.
On to maturity
This is the note which James strikes right away. There is a goal of maturity: that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (4b); there is a pathway to maturity: testing … produce steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect … (3b–4a); and there is a terrain through which that pathway must go: Count it all joy … when you meet various trials (2). To us this may all sound quite amazing, but to James it is the clue to the meaning of life. He is nothing if not realistic: life is a tale of various trials. The Greek here is more vivid than the English word various. In classical Greek poikilos means ‘many-coloured, variegated’, and from this basic meaning it came to be used for ‘diversified, complex, intricate’. Matthew (4:24) uses it to describe ‘any and every kind’ of sickness dealt with in the healing ministry of our Lord; Paul (2 Tim. 3:6) uses it of the limitless shapes which human desires take; and Peter (1 Pet. 4:10), of the endless ways in which the grace of God is proved to be sufficient for our needs. As he writes, James throws his main emphasis on poikilos: ‘… when you fall in with trials—no matter what form they may take.’ What a true picture of life! The man who went from Jerusalem to Jericho and ‘fell in with’ (the same word) a band of robbers was neither expecting it nor prepared for it. It came to him as one of the ‘changes and chances of this mortal life’. And any day, at any time of day, some experience of trial is, as it were, lying in wait ready to leap on us so that we cry out in surprise, ‘What is this?’, and in perplexity, ‘Why has it happened to me?’
It may well be that we are sometimes guilty of saying to others, ‘You must not worry so’, while our hearts are telling us that the particular trial they are enduring contains every reason for anxiety. Too often there is this element of loving (or maybe cowardly) duplicity in our ministry to the distressed. It is not so with James. The realism with which he faces the fact that life brings trials of every shape is wedded to his perception of the inner meaning of all experience. Interestingly, however, he does not say ‘I have discovered a secret’. The meaning of life is not a clue unveiled to James, but a truth common among Christians—at least as he sees it—for he says you know (3). He appeals, therefore, not for the adoption of a superficial gaiety in the face of life’s adversities, but for a candid awareness of truth already known.
The clue to life: progress through trial
What is the clue, then, the vital truth, with which we are to face our trials? We shall follow through James’ teaching in verses 3–4 with the help of three statements.
First, in the trials of life our Christian faith is being tested for genuineness. The testing of your faith means ‘the experience of having your faith put to the test’. James takes it for granted that ‘the natural effect of (trials) is to imperil persistence in faith’ (ROPES), and how true this is. We have all met people who, though with different terms suited to their differing experiences, would concur with the sad words of one elderly man: ‘I used to go to church, but five years ago my wife and my only daughter died within six months of each other, and after that it didn’t seem worth the bother.’ It is hard to use such a bitter experience as an illustration without seeming either to criticize the speaker for not being more resolute in the face of calamity, or to minimize the sharpness of his human sorrow. But no such criticism or insensitivity is meant: it is an only-too-often repeated fact that such faith as we possess collapses before the storm of sorrow, or pain, or disappointment, or whatever it may be. We say that we believe that God is our Father, but as long as we remain untested on the point our belief falls short of steady conviction. But suppose the day comes—as it does and will—when circumstances seem to mock our creed, when the cruelty of life denies his fatherliness, his silence calls in question his almightiness and the sheer, haphazard, meaningless jumble of events challenges the possibility of a Creator’s ordering hand. It is in this way that life’s trials test our faith for genuineness.
Secondly, James insists that we know (3) that the testing is designed to result in strong consistency: the experience of having your faith tested produces steadfastness (3). There is nothing unusual about this statement. It is just good observation of life. Young couples in the first excitement of their attraction to each other readily believe that theirs will be a life-long partnership: they are meant for each other. At this point in their relationship it is, of course, no more than a matter of opinion, and much more tentative than they are in a position to realize or willing to admit. Soon, however, their belief will face tests: the counter-attraction of other possible partners, a growing experience of individual likes and dislikes which will not harmonize without serious adjustment, maybe the cool or antagonistic reaction of one or both sets of parents, and so forth. It is as testings are endured that the relationship itself becomes more durable, and along the line of this process the incipient belief that they are meant to marry becomes a settled conviction. The same process goes on into their marriage. They have pledged themselves to forsake all other partnerships for life, and in the course of their life together—maybe by the experience of fighting off temptations or of gritty determination to save their marriage in a period of coolness, or just the shoulder-to-shoulder facing and bearing of the vicissitudes of life—their minds become irrevocably weaned away from the thought of infidelity. What began as a tentative belief ends as a fixed, unchangeable constancy of life.
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