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NEW TESTAMENT SURVEY NewTestament Survey


STUDY 10 - THE EPISTLE OF JAMES


For this study see: M.C.Tenney, pp.264-267; R.H.Gundry, pp.432-436. Further reading: D.A.Carson, et al., An Introduction to the New Testament, pp.409-420.

1. AUTHORSHIP, DATE AND PLACE OF WRITING

The author
The epistle is ascribed to James (1:1), but which James? Four are to be found in the NT (see Mt.4:21; 10:3; 13:55; Lk.6:16). The epistle is ascribed traditionally to James, the brother of the Lord, who features as an elder of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:13f.; Gal.1:18-19, 2:1-10).  But further: "If James was the brother of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels (Mk.6:3), their exact relationship remains to be defined.  Was James a child of Joseph by a former marriage, which would make him really a stepbrother, or was he a half brother, a son of Joseph and Mary, or was the word 'brother' loosely used to mean 'cousin'? All three theories have been advanced at various times, and usually the first and third have been defended by those who have argued for the perpetual virginity of Mary". [1] Note: Jesus is called Mary's 'firstborn' in Lk.2:7.

Why did James not call himself the brother of the Lord? A possible answer may be supplied by the evangelist in Mk.3:35.  James did not embrace the claims of Jesus until he encountered him after his resurrection (see: Jn.7:5; 1 Cor.15:7). 

Date and place of writing
James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1,2 & 3 John and Jude are commonly referred to as the general or catholic epistles as they have no specific address.  This practice goes back as far as Origen.  The internal evidence, however, may indicate a Jewish readership.  Note the Palestinian colouring in the allusions to the Sea, or Mediterranean (1:6), the scorching wind and the withering plant (1:11-12), figs and olives (3:12), drought (5:17), etc.  Like Hebrews, the epistle could have been directed to a fellowship of Hebrew Christians in a city like Rome.  They may have met in a synagogue (2:2). 

The epistle is seen by many to be the first NT book, dating c.A.D. 45. It must be dated before A.D. 90, as it is quoted by Clement of Rome (A.D. 90). [2]

The readers
The epistle indicates that the people addressed were made up of rich and poor (1:9-11; 2:15; 5:1-6).  Some were tainted with snobbery (2:1-3), others desired to be teachers, and lacked a control of the tongue (3:1-12).  A number were proud of their 'wisdom' (3:13-16).  Jealousy and pride were present in the fellowship (4:1-6). [3]

2. THE CHARACTERISTICS OF JAMES

A practical epistle The epistle is more practical than doctrinal.  It is concerned with everyday living.  It has striking similarities with the Sermon on the Mount (Mt.5-7).

Consider these parallels, reading James first:
1:2 (5:10-12);
1:4 (5:48);
1:5; 5:15 (7:7-12);
1:9 (5:3);
1:20 (5:22);
2:13 (5:7; 6:14-15);
2:14-16 (7:21-23);
3:17-18 (5:9);
4:4 (6:24);
4:10 (5:3-4);
4:11 (7:1-2);
5:2 (6:19);
5:10 (5:12);
5:12 (5:33-37).

So M.C.Tenney says, "The epistle seldom refers to systematic Christian doctrine.  The name of Jesus Christ appears only twice (1:1; 2:1), and there is a possible reference to him in 5:8.  The synagogue is mentioned as the place of meeting rather than the church (2:2). The illustrations are taken from the OT, or else are drawn from rural life.  In style and content the Epistle of James bears a striking similarity to the teaching of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount". [4]

3. OUTLINE AND CONTENTS OF JAMES

An outline of the epistle There is no fixed structure to James, but the way that the writer deals with a variety of topics and problems does gives a kind of outline to the book.  The epistle compares with the OT book of Proverbs. M.C.Tenney offers this outline to the epistle:

  • James: The True Standards of Living

  • Salutation (1:1)

  • The nature of true religion (1:2-27)

    Stability (vv.2-11)

    Endurance (vv.12-18)

    Action (vv.19-27)

  • The nature of true faith (2:1-3:12)

    Avoidance of discrimination (vv.1-13)

    Avoidance of inactive profession (vv.14-26)

    Avoidance of boastful officiousness (3:1-12)

  • The nature of true wisdom (3:13-5:18)

    Wisdom defined (3:13-18)

    Wisdom in spiritual life (4:1-10)

    Wisdom in legal relationships (4:11-12)

    Wisdom in commercial plans (4:13-17)

    Wisdom labour problems ( 5:1-6)

    Wisdom in waiting for the Lord (5:7-11)

    Wisdom in language (5:12)

    Wisdom in affliction (5:13-18)

  • Conclusion: The purpose of wisdom, an effective testimony (5:19-20).

An analysis of the epistle suggested by H.F.Vos:

  1. The Christian under trial (1:1-18).  Temptation is an opportunity to prove one's faith, and in the midst of it God will give wisdom to know what to do.  There is a reward for the overcomes.  Temptation to do evil is not of God.

  2. The Christian is a doer of the Word and not a mere hearer of it (1:19-27).

  3. The Christian in relationship to others (2:1-13).  Avoid partiality; love your neighbour as yourself.

  4. The Christian's faith is shown by their works (2:14-26).  This is the heart of the epistle. Its message is that one who has experienced the new birth will evidence it by good works.

  5. The Christian and the use of the tongue (3:1-18).

  6. The sinning Christian and victory over his sin (4:1-5:6).  Here the author deals with a number of subjects relating to victorious living.  One need not expect answers to prayer when they are offered for the mere purpose of self-advancement. Resist the devil. Beware of the spirit of envy.  Avoid the snare of riches.

  7. The Christian and the return of Christ (5:7-10).

  8.  Miscellaneous instructions for the Christian (5:11-20). [5]


4. FAITH AND WORKS

Note the discussion of about faith and works in Jam.2:14-26.  Martin Luther called James 'an epistle of straw' because it seemed to contradict the teaching of Romans and Galatians on justification by faith.  But note Tenney's comment:

"James is not really an attack on faith, but a protest against the hypocrisy of pretending to have faith without demonstrating it in works...James does not deny the necessity of faith. He insists that faith must produce results.  Like Paul, he took his illustration from the life of Abraham, the founder of the Jewish race and the first beneficiary of God's covenant relations with his people.  Paul cited this instance of Abraham's response to God's promise as proof that salvation is by faith, not of works (Rom.4).  James used Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac to prove that faith must be manifested through works in order to be real (Jam.2:21-24)". [6]

James, Paul and the Lord Jesus
The truths of justification by faith, and of works as the evidence of faiths are supplementary, not contradictory.  James counteracts the idea that divine grace allows men to live as they please - like Paul he is against antinomianism (see Rom.6:1-2).  Paul relates works to faith in Eph.2:8-10. The Lord Jesus taught, "By their fruit you will recognise them" (Mt.7:20).

ENDNOTES

1. M.C.Tenney, p.265.

2. F.F.Bruce dates 1 Clement at A.D. 96.

3. Notice that the NT church was not perfect! 1 Corinthians is another epistle that provides inside information about an immature church.

4. M.C.Tenney, p.264.

5. H.F.Vos, Beginnings in the New Testament, pp.95-96.

6. M.C.Tenney, p.267.




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