Bible Study on the Book of James: “Straight Talk” (CBByrd November 2014)
In the introduction to James in the Wesley Study Bible it is noted that Martin Luther held the book of James in low regard, calling it “an epistle of straw”. John Wesley, on the other hand, regarded it highly, commending it as a “remedy against the general temptation of leaving off good works in order to increase faith.” (Works, June 5, 1741), cited in the Wesley Study Bible p 1552).
This tension between pursuit of personal piety (Wesley’s “works of piety”) and the necessity of doing good in the world (Wesley’s “works of mercy”) has often been evident in the Christian life. Wesley made clear that it is not “either/or” but “both/and”. James, too, gives us the clear practical call to good works while pursuing a life of righteousness. In thinking about a theology of works myself, it should be noted that Wesley stressed that good works are not the way of salvation, but instead are a grateful and obedient response to Christ’s work of salvation in us.
Authorship- James- Brother of Jesus, top leader of church in Jerusalem. Chaired 1 Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:19-21. Compromised with Paul on the issue of Gentiles being required to follow Jewish law- abandoned requirement for circumcision, but recommended retaining dietary laws. Luke’s reference
Other references in NT to James- Matt 13:55, Gal 1:19, Mark 6:3
James’ letter gives deference to Jewish traditions. Scholars today suggest that the Greek style of the letter is too expert for one of James’ background, a complaint that was also leveled at Jesus.
In the years immediately after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the believers did not see themselves as a separate religion. They continued worshipping in the Jewish Temple, saw themselves as a movement within the Jews, much as Wesley saw his Methodists as a movement within Anglicanism, not a separate denomination. James, Matthew, and others in Jerusalem appear to have supported and sought to maintain that status as a movement within Judaism instead of a separatist movement.
Josephus (37 -c.100 AD ) reports that James, although apparently firmly entrenched in support of a Judeo-Christian approach to life, was eventually condemned by Jewish leaders and pushed off of a prominent height at the Temple, then beaten with clubs and stoned to death.
Structure of the Book:
In the Transformation Study Bible’s introduction to the letter of James, Warren Wiersbe notes the similarity between the themes of the Sermon on the Mount and the themes of James. In particular, one can observe in the Beatitudes the themes as noted in this rough parallel:
Beatitudes (Intro to Sermon on Mount) James
Introduction-stage, audience 1:1-1:8 Author, audience
Blessedness of poor, mourners, meek 1:9-1:12 Blessedness of poor and meek
Hunger and thirst for righteousness 1:13-27 Seek righteousness
Mercy 2:1-13 Mercy
Purity 2:14-26 Purity, righteouness
Peacemaker 3:1-4:12 Peacemaking
– 4:13- Woes to the wealthy
Persevere in persecution 7-11 Patience, perseverance
Prophets as examples 5:12- Care with pledges, prayer rightly
It has seemed to me that Jesus, in our first record of his teaching in Matthew’s gospel in Chapter 5, is laying out a brief syllabus for the themes and goals of his life’s ministry with these Beatitudes, from which the balance of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount will flow. He does so from what appears to be a rabbiinic, pastoral priestly role. James’ letter appears to confirm these basic foundational principles out of which other teaching arises. James brings in, too, a small bit of the “woes” pattern of Jesus’ teaching described by Luke which is observed to offer most of the same principles but from a more prophetic posture (James 4:13- ). The simple, straightforward manner in which James presents these principles suggests that he was well versed in Jesus’ teaching and faithful to communicate them just as Jesus did.
When viewed in this light, with the similarity of themes and the order in which they are presented, it appears that James is reiterating Jesus’ teaching but in his own practical manner for believers’ daily decisions, with exhortation to pay attention to small details of daily life. In that regard, the book reveals the heart of a pastor in James, although James appears to have remained in Jerusalem in a more administrative and episcopal role of leadership for the church as a whole. It seems appropriate that one of Jesus’ own family would be at the helm of the church early in its formation, as Christ described the church in very close and familial terms as his “bride”. It would be easy to see how James, who arrived late in belief in Jesus as the “Christ” among those who walked with him in the flesh, would assume that role, knowing Jesus all his life as he did. I can imagine the other believers turning to James at times and saying, “You are his brother. You knew Jesus well, what do you think he would say or have us do in this situation?” James’ accumulated years of experience in observing and listening to Jesus gave him credibility as an interpreter of the word for believers.
J.D. Walt of Seedbed.com writes:
“James is one of the few people in the history of the world who could shed light on the mysteriously hidden “growing-up years” of his brother Jesus—on what it actually looked like for the Son of God to grow in wisdom and stature and the favor of God and man. While his lips are sealed on the subject, we can be assured he disciples us with this most rarified unwritten commentary running in the background of his imagination.
While much of the New Testament concerns itself with the general spread of the Gospel, James offers us something of an advanced course in discipleship—the real Christianity, where the proverbial rubber meets the road of faith. He will not pander to the “easy believism” of our time. Rather than coddle us in our catastrophes, James will challenge our loyalty to Jesus to the very core of our being right in the middle of them.
James is not writing to some advanced class of Christians. He’s giving us real Christianity, not as a doctrinal treatise, but as basic discipleship. James offers us faith with works, mercy with justice, grace with truth and love with conviction. These are not dichotomies we hold in tension. They are realities we hold in union. (From Just…James, by JDWalt, Seedbed.com, 1/8/2019)
Who’s Who and Where’s Where in the Bible, Miller, Stephen M. 2004 Alive Communications, Inc: Colorado Springs, CO pp 182-183
Transformation Study Bible NLT, Wiersbe, Warren, Gen. Editor, Introduction to James, David Cook: Colorado Springs, Co 2009
Wesley Study Bible CEB, 2012, Common English Bible: Nashville, TN, p 1552