As I went through the letter James wrote to 1st Century Jewish believers, I observed that it breaks down into a dozen or so paragraphs each of which is a convenient length for us to deal with in one program. So, my intention is to do that.
Today’s program will be rather different though, because the first paragraph consists of just one sentence. James 1:1 “James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings.”You could almost skip over this, noting simply that it is a rather standard letter salutation of the period — identifying the writer, James, the recipients, Jews scattered throughout the Roman empire, and a verbal salute, “greetings.” Or, you could allow this small amount of information to pique your curiosity to dig deeper.
There are probably some questions that come to your mind from this one straightforward sentence, and the first big question might be: Which James is this? The gospels refer to several, there were two of Jesus’ disciples with that name, James the son of Zebedee and brother of John. This James was in Jesus’ inner circle and, then, there was James the son of Alphaeus. Other than the fact that he was a disciple, we don’t know much about him.
Along with these two, there was a James who was identified as the son of Mary, and James the brother of Jesus. (Of course, we recognize that this James was in fact Jesus’ half-brother. Mary was the mother of both of them, but only James was the biological son of Joseph.) Other men named James are mentioned in the Bible, but these were minor players. One of these was James the father of Judas, the disciple. I suppose this latter one is mentioned primarily to distinguish his son from Judas Iscariot. So, there are several men named James throughout the New Testament and I think it would be useful to know which one wrote the book we’re about to study.
I’m not going to take time to explain how scholars came to the conclusions they did, but there is a strong consensus that the James who wrote the epistle was not one of the twelve, but rather the one we identify as the half-brother of the Lord. He is sometimes referred to as “James the Just” but you won’t find that expression in the Bible. He was simply identified by the name “James” and, on one occasion, with the phrase “the Lord’s brother” by Paul in Galatians 1:19
He was likely the eldest of the younger siblings of Jesus, and would have been the head of the family after Jesus left Nazareth to engage in His three years of ministry. It seems likely that Joseph had passed away by this time, so in Jesus’ absence, James would have been responsible for his mother and brothers and sisters. We know that Mary believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but it appears that James and the rest of the family did not believe until after the death and resurrection of the Lord.
In 1 Corinthians 15:7, Paul mentions that after Jesus rose from the dead, He appeared to several specific individuals, among them James. Perhaps it was at this time that James came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. That must have been a shock. We know that earlier, Jesus’ siblings thought he was mentally ill. You can read about that in Mark 3:18. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like for James to suddenly realize that the big brother he thought was crazy was really the Son of God. Whether or not all of the other family members became believers, we don’t know, except for the one named Jude. He also wrote a short letter which is part of the New Testament.
James soon rose to prominence in the church in Jerusalem. Tradition gives him the title of “Bishop of Jerusalem,” although no New Testament writing supports this. But with or without the title, he was an important figure in his day. He was one of the two church leaders that Paul met with when he returned to Jerusalem after his conversion. (The other one was Peter.) He also demonstrated a place of leadership in Acts 15 at the council of Jerusalem where the early church leaders had to decide what legal requirements gentile Christians would have to meet. We read there that he was the one who made the closing statement. So that is most of what we know from the Bible about James, the man who wrote the letter we are about to look at.
What else comes to mind as we read this introductory sentence?
I’m intrigued that James identifies himself as a bondservant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. You’d think that if he might have mentioned his familial relationship to Jesus, rather than describing himself as His servant.
In fact this is something Jude did at the beginning of his letter as well. Both of these half-brothers of Jesus didn’t use their relationship with Him to promote themselves. While they were leaders in the early Church, it appears that they were not particularly revered because they had been members of the Lord’s biological family. And as we see here, they downplayed it — identifying themselves only as bondservants, or slaves, of Jesus rather than as his half-brother.
This leads me to comment briefly on the social conditions of the time. I doubt that any listeners to this program are personally acquainted with slaves (which is the more common translation of the Greek word “doulos”). However, in the 1st Century, slavery was a rather common social feature. Estimates suggest that between a third and a half of the citizens of the city of Rome were slaves. The number of slaves was lower in the more far-flung parts of the empire, but most people in those days would come into contact with slaves at least occasionally.
It’s worth noting what life was like for a Roman slave in the 1st century. It is true that some Roman slaves were skilled and often trusted with considerable responsibility, working as teachers, accountants, even as doctors. The majority worked domestically or on farms, in small industry, and mining — all of which was done by hand at the time. Under Roman law, slaves had no status. They were not citizens. They weren’t even considered to be “persons.” There was no limit to the exploitation or punishment they may be called on to endure. They were entirely subject to the whims of their owners and could be summarily executed for resisting. Grim stories about the suffering of slaves at the hands of sadistic and perverted masters abound.
In later years, under Emperors Claudius and Nero, things improved somewhat for slaves, but in the early days of the Christians under Emperor Tiberius, who succeeded Caesar Augustus, and Caligula, things were pretty rough for slaves. So it is interesting that most of the New Testament writers, and specifically James, identified themselves as slaves of Jesus. To be a slave in the Roman Empire at that time was not much to brag about. You had no rights. You had to do whatever you were told, regardless of how difficult or demeaning. You could not own; you were property!
However, this was exactly how early Christians saw themselves in relation to the Lord Jesus Christ. He had bought them at the cost of His own life, so they belonged to Him outright. They had no personal rights or agenda. They were prepared to do anything He asked of them. They saw life in spiritual, not material, terms — so they were prepared to lay down their lives to honour and serve their Master. Understanding this, helps us to understand why James would identify himself as a slave of Jesus rather than as His half-brother.
So far we’ve spent our time thinking about the man who wrote this letter and a little about the social conditions of the time. Another thing we notice in this verse is an indication of who was to receive the letter. It reads: “To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings.” I guess it would be fair to ask about the twelve tribes, where they were, and why they were scattered.
Some of those issues are easier to address than others. The twelve tribes simply refers to the Jews who were spreading throughout the Roman empire. From the time when the Roman General Pompey invaded Judea in 63 A.D. Jews began leaving their homeland for other parts of the Empire. Several sources indicate that during the 1st Century there were more Jews living outside of Judea than inside of it. We don’t usually think about this, but some New Testament passages help us know just how widely Jews were dispersed throughout the world during the years of Jesus’ ministry. Lets look at a few.
In Matthew 27:32 we read about Simon, the man who carried Jesus’ cross. He was from Cyrene, a city in Libya.
In Acts 2 we have a long list of places from which Jews had come to Jerusalem for Passover. Verse 8 tells us that these people had been in these places for more than one generation. They asked “How is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?” Then Luke indicates where they were from: There were Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs. I won’t take time to indicate where each of these is, but it covered the then-known parts of North Africa, Southern Europe, Asia Minor, and the Middle east as far east as Iran.
Later in Acts, Luke wrote of some of the ethnic synagogues in Jerusalem. These were made up of Jews who had returned to the city either to live, or to visit. In chapter 6, verse 9, we read of Libertines, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and people of Cilicia and of Asia. The first three refer to people of North Africa, the latter two to Asia Minor. It is clear that the message of Jesus was spreading among Jewish communities both in their homeland and in the expatriate ones in other parts of the world. James’ focus is on those who were scattered. Separated from the most mature Christian Church, the one in Jerusalem, they needed instruction on how to live as Christians, facing the challenges of the day.
While James would, no doubt, have been happy to have any Jews scattered throughout the Empire read his letter, he was really focussed on the Christians among them. Since he had had a place of prominence among the believers in Jerusalem who had come out of Judaism, these were the people he was particularly interested in reaching with his letter of encouragement.
So why would these people have been in particular need of encouragement?
First of all, they would all be relatively new Christians. Our best calculations suggest that he wrote the letter around the year 50AD. So any second generation Christians would be no more than young children. These people who had become followers of Jesus as the Messiah would be persecuted by others in the community who chose to reject His claim. Far from their homeland and the comfort it could potentially offer and distant from what was then the centre of the faith, they needed all the help they could get.
Incidentally, there was bigger trouble to come. I believe the Lord led James to write his letter to the Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire when He did because He knew that major persecution was on its way. While Jews had begun spreading throughout the Roman Empire during the 1st Century BC, it accelerated in the second half of the 1st Century AD. Frustrated with Jewish resistance, Rome sent General Titus to crush Judea. In AD70, Jerusalem fell and Jews, both those who practised traditional Judaism and those who had become Christians, dispersed throughout the Empire.
Twenty years after James wrote his letter, the need for its wisdom and comfort would be even greater than it was when he wrote it. Certainly, the audience for it would be much larger. And today, it is that much larger. It still speaks to believers, both those struggling with issues like persecution and those who need instruction.
The book of James begins right away dealing with the matter of persecution and how Christians should respond to it. This suggests to me that he knew this is the most pressing issue for his readers, so he gets straight to it. However, it’s not the only thing. He also deals with a lot of practical matters, like partiality in communities of believers. He addresses the issue of obedience and then puts the spotlight on our speech, our thinking and our decisions. He also touches on money, sickness, and ungodliness. There is lots to think about in this little book.
I’m looking forward to exploring it with you over the next few weeks. Regardless of what you are facing, this letter of James has something to say to you at a very personal level.