James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. The Epistle of James has had some serious opponents over the centuries, not least, Martin Luther who called it “a real strawy epistle”.
Luther was alluding to Paul’s warning about the foundation one lays as an elder and teacher in the Church, which will one day be tested (1 Cor. 3:12). Luther’s primary objection was that James does not sufficiently proclaim Christ and preaches a gospel of salvation by works rather than faith.
However, that is not fair to James. He was not writing an evangelistic tract but a letter to those who were already servants of Christ, exhorting them to live out their faith. His concern was that faith that does not lead to a changed life is not a living faith at all. It will neither glorify God nor point others to Christ.
The author of this epistle, who simply calls himself James, was obviously well known to his addressees. From earliest times he has been assumed to be James the half-brother of Jesus (Gal 1:19). He couldn’t have been James the disciple, the brother of John and son of Zebedee, because he was one of the first martyrs (Acts 12:2). No other James is well enough known to be a serious contender.
Those to whom James writes are “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion”. We can only guess their identity. It is most likely that they are predominantly Jewish believers, those dispersed in the persecution that arose after Stephen’s death (Acts 8:1 ff.; 11:19).
They probably also included other Jews who were already a part of the Dispersion (dating back to the exiles in the eighth to sixth centuries BC), who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah as the result of the witness of these first believers and the apostolic witness (Paul preached first in the local synagogues (Acts 17:1 ff.).
But note how James describes himself: “a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” What kind of credentialing is this – a mere servant/slave?
Surely James could have dropped in that he was none other than the brother of the Messiah, or “a pillar of the church” in Jerusalem? Would that not have lent his epistle more weight? Perhaps, but this is of no concern to James.
His primary relationship to Jesus is now spiritual, not physical; he is his Lord and Messiah (the Christ). Indeed, it was not until after the resurrection that he recognised his brother as his Lord (cf. Mark 3:20 f., 30 f. and 1 Cor 15:7).
That he is known by his readers to be a true servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ should be reason enough for them to take his message seriously.
What credentials do you most prize in Christian Leaders: character or gifting?
Heavenly Father, I thank you for the Jewish roots of my faith, and for Jews who have come to faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. I praise you that I have been grafted into the Israel of God and am now your child. Grant that I may also be your servant, and a servant to others for Christ’s sake. Amen.
Michael Hewat is currently serving as the Senior Minister at West Hamilton Community Church, New Zealand
Photo by Fauzan Saari on Unsplash