James 1:1 – Introduction
A. The author
Clues to His Identity
The Epistle of James begins with the words: "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ…" Since the Bible mentions more than one person named James, who is the author of this letter?
Some versions of the Bible indicate by the heading that the writer was an apostle. However, such a heading does not belong to the original text. In fact, it is only an indication of the opinion of the translators. Nowhere in the epistle does it state with certainty that its writer was an apostle. So how can we determine his identity? If we search the New Testament, we see that there were several men named James. Two apostles bore this name: James, the son of Zebedee, and James, the son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:2-3). As we read in Acts 12:2, the first James was executed. The only fact we know about the second James is that he was an apostle.
A Well-Known Leader
The first verse of this epistle indicates that the writer was so well-known that any further description of his identity was not needed. The writer of another book, Jude, gives a further clue when he calls himself a "brother of (this well-known) James".
In the New Testament there is another man called James who is not an apostle, but who can be considered the writer of this epistle. This James is the brother of our Lord (cf. Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3; and Galatians 1:19). He, along with his brothers, initially did not believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah (John 7:5). Only after Christ's resurrection did James come to believe in him (1 Corinthians 15:7). It appears that James held a prominent position in the early church. In Paul's Epistle to the Galatians it is apparent that James was known as the brother of the Lord (Galatians 1:19). We can also read about him in Acts 12:17, Acts 15:13 and Acts 21:18.
Servant of the Lord Jesus Christ
When this evidence from the Scriptures is carefully examined, we come to the conclusion that the writer of this epistle was not an apostle, but a brother of the Lord and a widely recognized leader of the church in Jerusalem. James, however, does not boast about the fact that he is a biological brother of Jesus, but introduces himself as the servant of the Lord Jesus Christ and of God. It is the bond of the Spirit and not of the flesh which binds him to Christ. The authority of God and of Christ stands foremost. It is with that authority that James asks our subjection in faith. It is not James who is speaking, but God and his Anointed speak through James. They made him their servant.
He who Boasts, Boasts in the Lord
Therefore, at the very beginning of this epistle, the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ is emphasized. Even his brother James, who, at first, refused to believe in him as Saviour and Lord, had been converted in order to serve his glorious Kingdom. As one of the first members of the new dispensation, James may serve to spread the Gospel. There is no room for boasting in man, but only in the victory of Jesus Christ.
B. The address
To Whom Was it Written?
The next important question to consider is: to whom was this letter written? Unlike other epistles in the New Testament, this letter does not mention a place, but only states that it was written to "the twelve tribes scattered among the nations". It is, therefore, difficult to state with complete certainty as to whom this letter was addressed. The traditional view is that James wrote to the Christian Jews who had been dispersed after the persecution mentioned in Acts 8:1.
Theme and Objective
Since the address of this epistle is closely connected with its theme and objective, it ought to be given careful consideration. The "twelve tribes" refers to the fullness of Israel, not merely as a national unit, but as God's people, the church. In the Old Testament, the phrase "the twelve tribes of Israel" is always a description of Israel as the congregation of the Lord in its unity and entirety. (Exodus 24:4; 28:21; 39:14; 1 Kings 18:31-32).
Thus, we may understand the use of this phrase in the New Testament in the same way. Israel is now being gathered throughout history and includes all peoples, tongues and nations (cf. Galatians 6:16). John, on the island of Patmos, sees all Israel in the splendour of God's grace. (See Revelation 21.)
The phrase "scattered among the nations" or “in the Dispersion” [NASB] (diaspora in the original) usually refers to the dispersion of the Jews into exile. In the post-exilic period, many Jews returned to Jerusalem but others remained in the land of exile. Jerusalem remained the spiritual centre. (cf. Acts 2:9-11) For the Jews who remained in exile, there was the real possibility that they would forget Jerusalem, and be absorbed into the pagan culture which surrounded them.
In the World, not of the World
James in this way describes the status of the church of all ages as "in the world, but not of the world"; God has placed the church in the world, but it is not of the world. The dispersion of the Christian congregation at Jerusalem gave him a practical example. To be "scattered" is the mark of the one holy catholic church. (Compare 1 Peter 1:1 with Philippians 3 and Galatians 4.)
Using the concrete situation of his time, James instructs the holy catholic church in the law of the kingdom of heaven. The danger that the church will conform to the world is always present. James spares no effort in the fight against world-conformity (secularization). The book of Proverbs and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) play a prominent role in this epistle. The Wisdom of God taught in this style in the book of Proverbs, and Christ, the Wisdom who became flesh, proclaimed it. James follows Scripture in the footsteps of his Sender.
This epistle is more unified than it appears at first glance, when seen in the light of "in the world but not of the world." This epistle, likely the oldest of the Christian church, is relevant for us today. It not only gives us information concerning the struggles of the early church, but also teaches that the church today needs to continue in the struggle against conformity with the world. We must learn every day anew to be a "chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God." (1 Peter 2:9)
James pronounces "greetings". Some translations use another word such as "hail", or "salutation". The epistles of Paul usually state: "Grace and peace to you." (cf. Philippians 1:2) This is not just a greeting from one man to another. The writer is speaking in his office in the name of God and Christ. God gives salvation in the way of faith.
Before the Holy Spirit, through James, gives instructions in the royal law, he bestows salvation on the church in the dispersion. Indeed, that law can only be kept in thankfulness for the deliverance through Jesus Christ (i.e. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 32) which has been given to us by God out of mere grace through the merits of Christ.
Questions for Discussion
- Describe the political and social circumstances in which this epistle was written.
- How did Martin Luther describe this epistle? What do you think he meant? (Hint: Luther never declared this epistle to be uncanonical.)
- Who denied that the Lord had biologically related brothers and sisters? What has been the traditional position of Reformed churches on this matter?
- From whom and through whom do the office-bearers receive their authority? What is the nature and extent of this authority?
- What does the name LORD mean? (Actually it says Kurios.) Compare Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 34.
- Did James write another letter? See Acts 15:23 ff. in its context.
- Which salutations do we use in our worship services? Are these wishes or promises of God which must become fulfilled in the way of faith? What ought to be our demeanor during the pronouncements of the blessing at the beginning and the end of our worship services? See also G. van Rongen: Liturgy of God's Covenant.
- Which contemporary false doctrine undermines the true doctrine of "being in the world, but not of the world"?
- How must we counter the danger of secularism?