Biblical Studies (NT)/The Epistle of James: Faith and Action
THE EPISTLE OF JAMES
Faith and Action
The first fourteen of the twenty-one epistles in the New Testament are referred to by the names of the addressees. The last seven, beginning with the epistle of James, are referred to by the names of their authors. James identifies both himself and the people to whom he is writing in the first verse of his epistle. He writes, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (1:1).
There are actually four individuals called James mentioned in the New Testament, but it has been accepted since the earliest days of the church that this is the brother of Jesus, which means that he was also the brother of Jude, the writer of the epistle of the same name. James had a reputation as an unusually good man, so much so that he was referred to as “James the Just” by his contemporaries. According to one early church writer, he spent so much time kneeling in prayer that his knees became hard and calloused like those of a camel!
Knowing that he was the brother of Jesus gives us some knowledge of his background. Since Jesus was Mary’s firstborn, James was his younger brother. He was probably born in Nazareth, though it is possible he was born in Egypt where the family went after Jesus’ birth to escape the massacre of Bethlehem’s infants by Herod the Great. Either way, he will have grown up in Nazareth, where the family went on their return from Egypt after Herod’s death.
As brothers, James and Jesus had grown up together. Therefore, it is probable that few people had a more intimate knowledge of Jesus’ life. According to the Gospel of John, however, Jesus was criticized by his family: “Not even his brothers believed in him” (Jn 7:5). It appears, therefore, that James did not believe in his brother’s divinity initially. Once James was converted, however, he gave himself wholeheartedly and rose to a position of prominence in the early church. He eventually became the head of the church in Jerusalem and earned a position of respect throughout Christendom. His position of authority is first indicated in the twelfth chapter of Acts where Peter has just been miraculously freed from prison by an angel. Peter gives instructions to “tell these things to James and to the brethren” (Acts 12:17), which may imply that James was in a leadership position among them.
James appears to have been the overseer of the Jerusalem Council of 50 A.D., when the apostles came together to discuss the issue of whether non-Jewish converts should have to observe the laws of Moses, particularly circumcision. After hearing the testimony of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, James proposed that non-Jewish believers should only be required to “abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:20) – things which were associated with the pagan practices of the time. The apostles and elders agreed and this policy was henceforth adopted.
Another evidence of his standing in the church is the opening of Jude’s epistle. Jude identifies himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (Jude 1), possibly indicating that James was a known and respected name in the early church. Therefore, when James introduces himself in the first verse of his epistle, the mere mention of his name gives weight to everything that is about to follow. He identifies himself quite simply as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). The recipients knew who he was, and the fact that the letter was from James guaranteed its acceptance.
According to the historians Josephus (ca. 37-100 A.D.) and Eusebius (ca. 263-339 A.D.), James was martyred in about 62 A.D. The high priest Ananus, with the support of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish leadership council), ordered him to proclaim in the temple that Jesus was not the Messiah, but instead he declared that Jesus was the Son of God and the judge of the world. His persecutors responded by dragging him from the temple and stoning him to death. Like Jesus and Stephen before him, his dying words were a prayer that his murderers would be forgiven.
Addressees and Date
James’ epistle is addressed to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (1:1). These were the Jews who were living outside of Palestine, often referred to as the Diaspora, a word which means dispersion. If this epistle was sent to all of the cities where there were Jewish Christians in the middle of the first century, it may have been read in such diverse places as Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Cyprus, and Crete.
As James’ death was in 62 A.D., we know that this epistle was written before that date, but the exact year is unknown. As the epistle is addressed to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad,” it is likely that it was written after mid-century, for the Christian communities outside of Palestine did not begin to develop significantly until the late forties, when Paul began his evangelistic journeys. Therefore, it is likely that the epistle was written between 50 and 62 A.D.
The Importance of Faith
James could not have known that when the canon of the New Testament was settled (i.e. when the writings considered appropriate for inclusion in the New Testament had been agreed upon), his epistle would be placed immediately after the epistle to the Hebrews, yet it follows beautifully upon its heels. Both epistles are addressed to Jewish Christians, and the opening verses of James function like a bridge passage, binding the two epistles together. No sooner is this introduction complete than James dives into the theme of faith, picking up where the writer of Hebrews has just left off.
James writes, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (1:2-3). In large part, James' comments are addressed to people who had compromised their faith as a result of persecutions which they had endured at the hands of their own people. James reassures them, saying:
- If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, without doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. Let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” (1:5-7).
In making this statement, James emphasizes from the outset the importance of faith in the religious life. By placing this plainly stated message in his introduction, he lays the foundation for the moral and spiritual directions which follow. His message is loud and clear: to live a Christian life, a person must have faith.
Faith and Action
The theme for which this epistle particularly stands out is its emphasis on the fact that faith does not stand alone; it is always accompanied by corresponding words and deeds in the life of the believer. It was James who coined the famous phrase, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (1:22).
This and other epistles suggest that there were people in the first-century church who taught that if we are saved by grace working through faith, our actions are irrelevant where salvation is concerned. James says that such believers are “deceiving themselves” and gives the analogy of a hungry man, who will not be satisfied merely by being told to be filled. He must have real, physical food in order for his hunger to be satisfied. In the same way, faith without action has no substance. James says, "Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, 'You have faith, and I have works.' Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works" (2:17-18). To illustrate the point, James cites the example of Abraham:
- Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness." (2:21-23)
James' statement that Abraham was justified by works has led some people to suggest that he contradicts Paul, who teaches that, while we have a responsibility to serve God with selfless actions, we are not saved by our actions, but by grace alone, a grace which works through faith. A closer examination, however, reveals that James and Paul are in agreement, for Paul says that "not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified" (Rom 2:13). Paul applies this, not just to the Jews who were raised on the law of Moses, but to those Gentiles who "by nature do the things contained in the law" (Rom 2:14). The point, both for James and Paul, is that where true faith exists, it will be revealed in corresponding actions. James does not appear to believe that the actions in themselves have any saving grace, for he concludes that Abraham’s faith (not his action) is credited to him as righteousness.
James makes another important point in the above quote when he says: “By works faith was made perfect” (2:22). Putting this together with the rest of the quote, we see that, for James, faith produces action, and action, in turn, strengthens faith.
Examples of Faith in Action
James writes, “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality” (2:1). There are indications that discrimination was a problem in the early church, for Paul also addressed this issue in 1 Corinthians. For James, bigotry and faith are incompatible.
James also warns against the destructive power of negative speech: “Every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no one can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (3:7-8). By contrast, “the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (3:17).
Where there is faith, there is also patience and perseverance. In this regard, James says that we can look to the lives of the prophets for inspiration and encouragement: “Indeed, we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the purpose of the Lord, that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful” (5:11).
In his closing verses, James writes, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (5:15-16). An active prayer life gives evidence of an inner faith. As an example, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit” (5:17-18). This drought was in punishment for the idolatry which had been promoted in the land by King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. But James’ point is that Elijah was just a normal person who, through faith, accomplished great things.
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