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The first chapter of the Epistle of James is doubtless the key to grasping the rest of the letter. It is both the longest and most complex chapter in the epistle. The chapter revolves around James's exhortations to his readers related to the practice of real faith or true religion. Beyond the brief introduction, the chapter has three major sections which all relate to James's concern for authenticity in the lives of his readers. Whether urging his fellow Jewish Christians to persevere through trials, or admonishing them to practice the Word they claim to have heard, James always aims toward the same target-true religion.
Perhaps nothing reveals the character of a person more than what he says about himself. Reading James's introduction to his epistle helps us to understand something of the self-perception of this man. James, a servant of God (Jas. 1:1), isn't much of an introduction, especially in comparison with other literature of the day, and yet it speaks volumes about the author. The word servant literally means "slave." James viewed himself as the property of God. His self-understanding was born from the deep conviction that lifeis intended to be defined in relationship to God and to His purposes. Even as Israel was the servant of Yahweh (the Hebrew name for God), so James, as a latter-day Israelite, viewed himself in those same terms.
Further, we have to take into account what James doesn't say in his introduction. We surely could imagine him using his relationship to the Lord Jesus, his half brother, to his advantage. It could go a long way in garnering authority and influence for his writing. But in reference to Jesus, he simply added, And of the Lord Jesus Christ-Christ being another One who deserved his servitude. Were James a man typical of our times, he would doubtless remind us of his advanced standing in the Jerusalem church. He would engage in a bit of divine "name-dropping"-for example, "James, the brother of the Lord Jesus Christ." He might even fall back on the name that had been given to him because of his reputation in the church: "James the Just."
But the fact that this man felt no compelling need to underscore either his apostolic authority in the Jerusalem church or his blood kinship to Jesus himself tells us what we really need to know. Here was a man secure in who he was and satisfied to be known simply as God's servant. In opting for such a humble introduction, James set the tone for the important teachings to follow that would urge humility as an important evidence of possessing true wisdom.
The use of the title Lord (Jas. 1:1) is noteworthy because although Jesus is mentioned only here and one other place in the epistle (see also 2:1), the attitude and perspective of this letter is charged through and through with the concept of Jesus as Lord. Jesus' lordship was commonly associated in the early Jewish church with the idea of His exaltation and triumphant return to this world. Christ's return to the earth as judge was of particular concern to James; thus this picture of Jesus as Lord dominates the rest of the epistle. So, even though references to Christ in this letter are rare, Christ's lordship over history provided the perspective from which James wrote.
The words To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings make James's introduction among the briefest in the New Testament. This general, nonspecific introduction places James among the General Epistles. But, given James's Jewish roots and the broadly accepted notion that he was writing to Jewish or Hebrew Christians, this brief word of greeting takes on added significance.
The Greek term translated here as scattered more technically refers to "dispersion." Originally, the "dispersion" was a historical event associated with Jewish people living outside of Palestine after the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C. Through the years the term came to refer to Jews who were dispersed geographically throughout the known world. Since this letter is addressed to Christians, the usage is obviously figurative, but given James's concern with living in obedience to the Word, the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 30 may have been in the back of his mind.
Moses had urged the gathered tribes of Israel, on the verge of entering the Promised Land, to remember his words to them (the text of Deuteronomy), especially when times were tough: "When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations ..." (Deut. 30:1). James is about to remind his readers, dispersed as they are, to remember the tenets of true religion and to put them into practice. He will call them to consider how obedience brings blessing and how forgetfulness and disobedience bring curses. Thus, his greeting may be an intentional link to the theology of covenant keeping and obedience that Moses presented in Deuteronomy.
Beyond such a possible link, the word of greeting combines the unity of God's people with the circumstances of their being scattered here and there throughout the world. All good Israelites knew that no matter where they found themselves on the earth, they remained a called people. Whatever the circumstances of their lives, there was still one abiding reality that pertained-they were Israel. And they were expected to live like it, circumstances notwithstanding.
James is reminding his readers that the church is a distinct gathering of people, the ecclesia, the "called-out assembly." Wherever God's people are, they are to be distinct and recognizable as such. Even when the church often finds itself "scattered" in the world-a minority of faith in the midst of accommodating unbelief-there remains one abiding reality: they are part of God's people. Circumstances are never valid reasons for losing one's essential spiritual identity.
Whatever the specific circumstances that may underlie such a greeting by James, the reality is that the twelve tribes are neither large nor powerful. Their confidence cannot be in any of the factors that typically appeal to nations or peoples. Their confidence is owing to one thing alone-they belong to God. So this greeting, short as it is, reminds readers that this is the word of God's servant to a servant people who are scattered literally and figuratively in a world which may not take notice of them.
Excerpted from JAMES by J. Michael Walters Copyright © 1997 by Wesleyan Publishing House. Excerpted by permission.
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