I guess James’s book will always have a special place in my heart. Several years ago, while I was in the Army, I got involved with a group of fellow believers who were running a Bible study in Temple, TX. I spent a lot of time with them, and I grew spiritually by leaps and bounds via our mutual encouragement and challenge. The first Bible study we did was on the book of James, using the Navigator’s LifeChange series (and I still can’t recommend anything in that series highly enough). For the first time in my life, I did a small-group Bible study with some peers with some depth to it.
During that time, there was one main conclusion I made about James. There are a lot of mysteries in the Bible, a lot of obscure passages which are hard to understand, passages on which good Christians can differ. I wish James was like that. I wish James was harder to understand at times. Most of it’s not. If I had to sum up James’s writing style in one word, my nomination would be “blunt.” I mean he’s about as subtle as a brick upside your head.
You can see this almost immediately. Paul starts his epistles with fairly long introductions and greetings. He mentions who he is, the fact that he’s an apostle called by Jesus Christ. You know to whom he’s writing, and he normally starts off with a “Grace and Peace” passage that includes some beautifully flowery-type phrases about the Lord Jesus. If you’d like the ultimate example, see Ephesians 1:3-14.
Not so with James at all. He introduces himself as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He addresses this “To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” And his flowery phrase? “Greetings.” That bluntness is very characteristic of the man and his letter.
By the way, who is this guy? It’s not the apostle with that name: That man died early in church history, murdered by Herod as noted in Acts 12. The best identification seems to be the Lord’s half-brother. He didn’t believe in Jesus during the latter’s earthly ministry, but according to Paul in 1 Corinthians, the Lord appeared to James after the Resurrection, and not only did James become a believer, he led and officiated at the first church council in Acts 15.
That’s what’s amazing in his introduction; sometimes what Scripture doesn’t say is almost as important as what it does say. He could have done the ultimate “name drop” and mentioned that he was the Lord’s brother. He could've also mentioned that he was a leader of the church in Jerusalem, where the Church (with a capital “C”) started. Paul called him a “pillar” of the church. Well, he dropped a name, all right. He dropped off all the names he could’ve claimed, and ended up claiming the only title that meant anything to him: “servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
With a lot of the epistles, it doesn’t matter all that much when they were composed, but here it does. This is a very Jewish book. A lot of material here is very similar to the book of Proverbs (and of course all his focus on “wisdom” helps that impression), and he also has the-- well, I have to say it—bluntness of one of the prophets like Amos. One of the reasons why it’s so Jewish-sounding is because it’s probably one of the earliest books of the N.T., probably written around A.D. 44-49, more likely towards the earlier than the later date. That would jibe with its “Jewishness,” since the earliest years of the Church had the most Jewish believers, with Gentiles taking up more of the population as time went by.
Another thing that marks the Jewish nature of this book is the emphasis on personal righteousness. He’s called “James the Just” because of his focus on the need for believers to live out their faith. Yes, he believed in salvation by grace through faith just as much as Paul did, but while Paul focused his fight against legalism, James focused on a fight against antinomianism, which is just as much a perversion of the Message of salvation as legalism is.
Another ironic--yet touching--point to consider is that while he talks about the Lord Jesus in his 1st verse and sprinkled here and there in his letter, he doesn’t really talk about Jesus all that much. But. . .instead of talking about the Master, he talks like him. If you read this book carefully and compare it with the Gospels, you’ll notice a lot of similarities. He quotes and alludes to Jesus’ teachings more than anyone else in the N.T.
As we go through the book of James over the next couple of weeks, let’s ask the Spirit to use it to change us, to help us to demonstrate what we believe. Shall we?
Lord Jesus, I believe in you. But so often I don’t demonstrate it like I should. With all the titles James could’ve claimed, the only one that he cared about was “servant.” What else should I claim for myself?