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Insights on James, 1 & 2 PeterSwindoll's New Testament Insights
By Charles R. Swindoll
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Charles R. Swindoll
All right reserved.
We live in a world where politics rules the day. In this world, a person's public reputation too often drowns out the private reality. Whom you know usually trumps what you know. Name-dropping often gets you further than talent or skill. These cynical sayings apply not only to the political realm, where quid pro quo is the status quo. Unfortunately, the "good ol' boy" system tends to corrupt most areas of business, academia, entertainment ... and, yes, even the church.
This is why the opening words of the book of James are so refreshing. Like a cool spring breeze blowing through a musty room, the unassuming nature of these first few words drives out arrogance, ego, and presumption. Written by a man who could have dropped the Name above all names, this simple, straight-forward greeting sets the tone for a letter that assaults our natural human tendencies toward sin and selfishness with a radical message of authenticity and humility.
IDENTIFICATION OF JAMES
From the very first word, the name "James," this short letter presents us with a problem: which "James" wrote this letter? His humble self-identification as "a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" doesn't get us far. And unless we were among those first recipients of the letter, we are left to some old-fashioned sleuthing to find out which James penned these words.
If you run through the New Testament from Matthew to the book of James, you will come across four or-depending on how you count them-five men with this name (see chart, "Five Men Named James"). It's fairly easy to rule out a couple of these. James, the father of Judas (#1), never appears in the New Testament except in Luke 6:16. And James, the son of Alphaeus, is probably the same as "James the Less" (#3a and b). Though he is one of the Twelve, he disappears from the biblical account after the upper room experience on Pentecost (Acts 1:13). These two can be safely dismissed as candidates for authorship.
This leaves James, the son of Zebedee and brother of the apostle John (#2), or James, the half brother of Jesus (#4). Though the first James, one of the "Sons of Thunder," played a major leadership role in the infant church as one of Christ's inner three (Peter, James, and John), he was the first of the Twelve to suffer martyrdom under Herod Agrippa I. That occurred around AD 44 in a persecution that resulted in further scattering the Jewish Christians throughout the Roman world (Acts 12:2). Shortly after this persecution, Jesus' half-brother James (#4) stepped in to lead the persecuted church in Jerusalem (12:17; 15:13; 21:18). This James, reared with Jesus in the home of Joseph and Mary, likely penned the letter that bears this name.
This identification of the author as the half-brother of Jesus goes back to the earliest centuries of Christian history. Most conservative New Testament scholars agree that both the tone and the content of the letter match the style one would expect from a well-known leader of the original Jewish Christian church.
A REVIEW OF THE LIFE OF JAMES
What do we know about James, the brother of Jesus, that will help us as we read his letter? Let's reconstruct a meaningful picture of his life.
No second-born son or daughter can possibly fathom what it must have been like to suffer second-child syndrome with an older brother who never sinned. But James did. Can you imagine? Jesus always came when His mother called Him the first time. He always washed His hands properly before supper. He always did His chores quickly and with delight. He always obeyed. Then there was James, born with a sinful nature like the rest of us, living in the shadow of a big brother who was God in the flesh. Being far from perfect, younger brother James had a built-in problem right from the start.
I suppose James would have been happy to see Jesus leave home when He did. But then his already "strange" older brother came back to their hometown saying, "I'm the Messiah!" How do you think James felt toward his older brother then? We don't have to wonder. John 7:5 says, "Not even His brothers were believing in Him." And Mark 3:21 tells us that His family "went out to take custody of Him; for they were saying, 'He has lost His senses.'" So, throughout the Gospels, we see James in a state of unbelief and skepticism over his older brother.
But things didn't stay that way.
In 1 Corinthians 15:7, the apostle Paul gives us a brief glimpse at an otherwise unknown event-the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to his brother James. We probably should avoid speculating about the nature of that visit, but I suspect it differed from Paul's much-needed Damascus encounter-the one that knocked him off his horse and blinded him with brilliant glory. Rather, I picture Jesus putting His arms around His younger brother, whispering words of encouragement and love in his ear ... words he had longed to hear all his life.
In any case, when the disciples of Jesus gathered in the upper room after their Lord's ascension into heaven, James sat among them (Acts 1:14). He experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2) and the subsequent growth of the Jerusalem church in the midst of persecution (Acts 3-9). James was no doubt active in the Jerusalem church when Stephen was arrested and later martyred for his faith (6:8-7:60). Furthermore, James would have been aware that a young, zealous rabbinical student known as Saul of Tarsus supported the brutal death of Stephen and had begun "ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women" to put in prison (8:3).
Shortly after his conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-18), Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul the apostle, returned to Jerusalem to meet the leaders of the church he had once so viciously persecuted. It is noteworthy that he sought out James (Gal. 1:19) in that gathering. The account of this visit is recorded in Acts 9:26-28.
When he came to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. And he was with them, moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord.
Though initially suspicious of Paul's conversion, James quickly identified the marks of authentic faith in Paul's words and works. Perhaps James recalled his own stubbornness in accepting Jesus' messianic claims even though he had lived with Jesus all his life. But like Saul of Tarsus, James finally came around. God's work of grace had grabbed his heart, which resulted in his looking at his brother Jesus in a whole new light. As a result, not many years later, James wrote what is likely the very first book of the New Testament to be written, the short, practical manual of Christian living we call "James."
A dispute erupted in the church around AD 49, threatening to break the unity between Jews and Gentiles. Acts 15 tells us, "Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'" Naturally, this addition of circumcision to the gospel troubled Paul and Barnabas, who had been preaching a simple message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone apart from works (Gal. 2:15-21). Wanting to set the record straight, Paul and Barnabas immediately went to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and elders, including Peter and James.
When Paul made his case to the leaders in Jerusalem, Peter concurred, reminding those assembled at the council that God had saved the Gentiles strictly by faith when he preached the gospel to Cornelius and his household (Acts 15:7-11; see 10:1-11:18). Following this, James himself stood up and supported Peter and Paul. Look closely at James's argument found in Acts 15:13-21:
After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, "Brethren, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written,
'After these things I will return, And I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, And I will rebuild its ruins, And I will restore it, So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, And all the Gentiles who are called by My name,' Says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago. Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath."
James's wise and convincing words became the basis for the Jerusalem council's decision to affirm Paul's gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. In agreement with Paul and Barnabas, the Jerusalem apostles and elders firmly rejected the addition of works to the gospel (and aren't we grateful!). In order to maintain unity between the Jewish and Gentile believers, however, and to keep from offending Jewish Christians who felt compelled to keep the Law of Moses, Gentile converts were asked to avoid practices that would cause offense. Stated succinctly, James wanted to ensure that God-honoring works authenticated genuine faith.
James appears again in the book of Acts almost ten years later in AD 58. Shortly before being arrested and sent to Caesarea and later to Rome, Paul arrived in Jerusalem from his third missionary journey and met with James, who by then clearly had become the leader of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 21:15-19). In an attempt to exonerate Paul from charges that he had been encouraging Jews to abandon their customs after coming in faith to Christ, James and the other elders in Jerusalem encouraged Paul to participate in a purity ritual at the temple (21:23-24). From this we learn that James, a Jewish Christian living in Jerusalem and leading the Jewish believers, continued to keep the Law as a testimony to his fellow Jews. The last thing he wanted was for his genuine faith in Jesus as the Messiah to be maligned because he and his people abruptly turned their backs on the Law of Moses. Though the Law was never a means of salvation, for James and many Jewish believers, the Law was a means of testimony to unbelieving Jews that their faith empowered them to do good works.
Ancient historians tell us that James continued to live and teach in Jerusalem, convincing many Jews and visitors that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Greatly esteemed for his piety, he spent so much time in the temple kneeling in prayer that he received the nickname "Camel Knees." Even his opponents, the scribes and Pharisees, could find no fault in him-except, of course, his "misguided" belief in the messiahship of Jesus.
James's authentic faith eventually brought about his death. His true faith in Christ-demonstrated through good works, strengthened through suffering, and seasoned with God-given wisdom-drew the ire of the increasingly zealous and jealous religious elite. His words and works attracted thousands of Jews to Christ, and the anti-Christian powers in Jerusalem eventually had enough of him. The ancient church historian, Eusebius, describes the events leading up to James's final confrontation with his opponents.
But after Paul, in consequence of his appeal to Caesar, had been sent to Rome by Festus, the Jews, being frustrated in their hope of entrapping him by the snares which they had laid for him, turned against James, the brother of the Lord ... Leading him into their midst they demanded of him that he should renounce faith in Christ in the presence of all the people. But, contrary to the opinion of all, with a clear voice, and with greater boldness than they had anticipated, he spoke out before the whole multitude and confessed that our Savior and Lord Jesus is the Son of God. But they were unable to bear longer the testimony of the man who, on account of the excellence of ascetic virtue and of piety which he exhibited in his life, was esteemed by all as the most just of men, and consequently they slew him.
Josephus reports that James was simply stoned, but Eusebius recounts that he was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple, and then beaten to death with a club. Whatever the details of his brutal and unjust execution, James, the brother of Jesus, was martyred for his faith in AD 62.
A PREVIEW OF THE LETTER OF JAMES
In light of James's pedigree, position, kinship, and legacy, imagine how he could have started his letter:
"James, of the tribe of Judah, of the house of David, of the royal line of the kings of Judah ...," or
"James, the eldest of the brothers of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God ...," or
"James, pastor of the First Christian Church of the world ...," or
"James, longtime associate of Peter, James, John, Paul, and the rest of the apostles ..."
James could have dropped all kinds of names, pulled high rank, and impressed his readers with ego-inflating titles. But as we will see when we unpack his letter, that kind of pride is one of the things he rails against. That may be the style of this me-first world, but that wasn't the style of James. Instead, he began his letter simply, "James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ." James was a bond-servant (Greek doulos)-an indentured servant or slave, not a prized position in a class culture of the Roman world. But James did not regard his slavery to God and submission to Jesus Christ as burden or curse, but as a glorious honor.
After introducing himself, James then addresses the letter to his audience with a typical letter form at the time. He addressed his letter "To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad." Though most of the historical twelve tribes of Israel had lost their distinct identities centuries earlier in the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, the term "twelve tribes of Israel" continued to be used as a figure of speech, referring to all children of Israel throughout the world. The phrase "who are dispersed abroad" reinforces the fact that James addressed primarily Jewish Christians, those he had likely known in Jerusalem, who had scattered as a result of persecution of the church by the unbelieving Jewish authorities. Several times throughout the book James calls his readers "brethren," indicating that he is addressing fellow believers in Jesus, not merely all Jews spread throughout the Roman world.
So, James was a Jewish believer writing to other Jewish believers in the first century who were "dispersed abroad." The Greek word is diaspora, meaning "scattered throughout," like seed sown throughout a field. When James wrote this letter, numerous exiles from the Holy Land already had established Jewish communities throughout the Roman world. Also at this time the Roman emperor Claudius had persecuted and driven Jews from Rome. Jewish businesses were boycotted. Jewish children were mocked and thrown out of schools. Times were harsh and life was grim.
At the same time, Jewish Christians, like the people to whom James wrote his letter, seem to have been living under a double diaspora. Not only were they subject to Roman ire because of their Jewishness; many had been driven out of the Jewish communities themselves because of their faith in the Messiah. More than any others, Jewish believers lived without roots and traveled outside Judea, looking for a place to call home. Many of these men and women found themselves in a social and religious limbo.
Though I believe suffering purifies and matures, I also believe that relentless, extreme suffering can confuse and crush. Many of these Jewish believers had begun to grow weary, tempted either to turn their backs on their Jewish roots or to defect from their faith in Christ. Many claimed that they believed the truth of God concerning the Lord Jesus, but because of the pressures of the day, they began to live a lie.
In this context of suffering, confusion, and defection, it is not surprising that James writes a letter of strong exhortation. Remember, this letter is not a doctrinal treatise, not a defense of the gospel regarding the person and work of Christ, not a retelling of the Christian story. This letter assumes his readers already know all those things. Instead, James pens a letter about authentic faith lived out in a hostile world.
Excerpted from Insights on James, 1 & 2 Peter by Charles R. Swindoll Copyright © 2010 by Charles R. Swindoll. Excerpted by permission.
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