The Epistle of James: Introduction

James  •  5 min. read  •  grade level: 11
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THE Epistle by the title as well as by its contents proclaims its peculiarity. It addresses the twelve tribes that were in the dispersion, not the elect strangers of the dispersion, but the mass of the old people of Jehovah. Nor is this quite unexampled even in the apostle Paul's feeling and phrase; for on the occasion of his speech before king Agrippa and Festus the procurator of Judaea he speaks of “our twelve tribes, earnestly serving day and night,” hoping to attain to the promise made by God unto the fathers (Acts 26). There is thus, as has been remarked, a striking counterpart between the Old and N. T. in this, that one book in the New is devoted as a testimony to Israel, as one in the Old (Jonah) is devoted similarly to the great Gentile city of that day (Nineveh), both exceptional and proving the rule.
Hence only is accounted for in this Epistle appeal (chaps. 4: 1, 4, 9, v. 1-6) to unbelievers in Christ or unconverted Jews, interspersed with addresses to those Jews who did believe (chaps. 2: 1, 5, 14; 3: 1, 13, 17; 5: 7, 8). There is no ambiguity as to his own confession of the Messiah. From the very first verse of the Epistle he announces himself bondman not more of God than of the Lord Jesus Christ; and he begins with the blessedness of enduring trial or holy temptation in a way that applies clearly to Christian Jews, while he proceeds to warn against sins which go beyond the faithful to mere profession in chap. ii. and afterward farther still.
As a whole the Epistle consists of exhortation from beginning to end; even its doctrine bears closely on moral ways, as in chaps. 1: 13-15, 16-21, 3: 5-8, 15-18. James is pre-eminently a teacher of righteousness; and was used of God in Jerusalem to meet the transition state between the old state that was about to close and the Christianity that was known more simply and fully among Gentiles. Accordingly his teaching, though as truly inspired of God as that of Paul, does not develop redemption in itself, its source, its objects, or its effects, but connects itself with the new birth, and the life we have from God by the word of truth, as opposed to outbreaks of temper and tongue which are the workings of fallen nature.
For this reason no one brings out more clearly than James “the law of liberty” (chaps. 1: 25, 2: 12), which is indeed his own phrase, in evident contrast with letter and its bondage. This, we shall see, supposes the new life which God's grace gives the believer, and which finds its pleasure in the things which please Him as shown in His word.
Nor is there the smallest excuse for imagining discrepancy between the teaching of Rom. 3, 4., and James' chap. 2. on faith, however common the idea was of old as it is now. The object before each writer is wholly different. The apostle Paul unfolds to the Roman saints how an ungodly man is justified, and declares that it is by faith. The apostle James lays down to the twelve tribes that a dead faith, destitute of works, is vain, and that the only faith of real account is that which is displayed in ways which glorify God. Living faith produces living works. He is exposing the worthlessness of an intellectual reception of the gospel, which had even then grown up among the Jews. We see the same principle during our Lord's ministry, and His repudiation of such faith. See John 2:23-25, 6: 66, 15. Nor is the self-same truth lacking even in the Epistle to the Romans, as in chap. 1: 18 (latter half), and also. chap. 2: 5-11. He is destitute of living faith who does not walk in the ways, and by the word and Spirit, of God. “For if ye live after the flesh, ye must die; but if by the Spirit ye mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Rom. 8:1313For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. (Romans 8:13)). So thoroughly is the great apostle of the Gentiles at one with this pillar of the circumcision, when the occasion of a godly walk calls for notice in the very Epistle which ignorant haste conceives to stand opposed. All the truth of God is in harmony, whether doctrinal, or ethical as this Epistle is eminently.
It may be well to add that, whatever the doubts of Alford, Neander and others, the writer was no, other than James “the little,” son-of-Alphæus or Clopas (really the same Aramaic name rendered into Greek somewhat differently): the same man who took the lead after the martyrdom of the son of Zebedee, as is plain in the Acts (chaps. 12: 17, 15: 13, 21: 18). Compare 1 Cor. 15:77After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:7), and Gal. 2:9, 129And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. (Galatians 2:9)
12For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. (Galatians 2:12)
. His words and ways elsewhere are strikingly in agreement with his letter. Patience and purity, love and lowliness, characterize the apostle and his writing for the sphere he labored in. It is remarkable that his language, and style, consist of excellent Greek with great energy. But the work given him in the Lord was, not to unfold divine counsels or to insist on redemption, but the urgent assertion of the moral consistency day by day, in affection, speech, and ways, of those who are called to endure patiently the various temptations of this world. This becomes such men as look for the crown of life, being already begotten of God by the word of truth according to His sovereign will.