Understanding the Letter of James, Part 1

It is worth repeating, “Context is King.” The Book of James presents lots of trouble to the reader, if one doesn’t keep in mind that the letter is (in fact) a letter, which has an original cause for its having been written and also a two-sectioned audience.

Firstly, one notices that James opens with a “To” line. The half-brother of Jesus is writing to a Jewish audience—Jewish in physical lineage but “born again” through repentance toward God and faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Why would James write to these “12 tribes scattered abroad”? Before the Dispersion of the Christians from Jerusalem (Acts 11:19; not to be confused with the B.C. Dispersion), James served as one of the ‘pillars’ (pastors) of the Christian church in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18-2:10). Just as Paul is the Apostle to the Gentiles, James (along with Peter and John) were Apostles to the Jews. Just as Peter wrote to Jewish believers “exiled” from Jerusalem (1 Peter 1), James is writing to the Jewish believers expelled from Jerusalem, who ended up in Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch of Syria as a result of persecution.

These facts determine a great deal about interpretation of the letter; AND it has direct application to today’s Christians who survive the atrocities of ISIS.

[Aside Prayer and Plea: God bless you and keep you, my brothers and sisters, and multiply His grace and peace to you through our Lord Jesus Christ! We shall know more about it further on, when we join Him at the Great Supper of the Lamb and His Bride. // Please support refugees of Syria through donating to Heart for Lebanon, a Christian humanitarian aid organization, lodging Syrian refugees and serving the impoverished of Lebanon in Jesus’ Name.]

The key to opening your understanding of the Book of James is realizing James addresses poor Jewish Christians and rich Jewish Christians—those who had lost everything due to persecution and those who knew the comforts of a settled life. The dispersed Jewish believers had just endured the turning over of their life circumstances. They fled. Some probably took very little, others probably took more; but none took all of their possessions. When they arrived to these places, they found life very hard indeed. They also found other gentile Christians (from the Day of Pentecost) in Antioch, who were undisturbed by the persecutions the Jerusalem Christians had faced. Bottom line: some Christians had more physical possessions and comforts than others. Some did not have so much as food or a jacket.

Trials, especially persecutions and their after effects, require Divine wisdom from above and trust in God as the Great Redeemer of all evil for good. There is no other way to endure trials with faith intact. Many of James’ original audience were tempted to think ill of God, if not one another. Strife broke out. These facts will also help the reader in interpretation of James. Put yourself in the setting. Imagine.

Also realize that God inspires James to scold Christians who claimed faith in God to provide for their fellow believers in need, yet would not provide for their brothers and sisters food or clothing when they had them to give. That kind of “faith in God” is dead. Essentially, James states if one trusts that God is mighty enough to provide for the needs of another, then he himself ought to put that faith into action by meeting the need. That is the sort of faith (trust) in God that is alive. It says, “Since I believe God provides coats, here is my extra… I will trust God to replace my abundance, unless my abundance was always meant for your need anyway.” [Note: we should not give in such a way to make ourselves suffer need (2 Corinthians 8:8-15).]

When reading the book, one can note the exchanges of address from “rich” to “poor” to “both” quite clearly. Then, after you have gained the setting and their bearing on the passages, apply the principles to your own life. In part 2, I will outline the book by paragraph, according to audience: Rich (R), Poor (P) or Both (B).

In closing this introduction to James, I give a tremendously encouraging truth. Trials do indeed require Divine wisdom. God gives us answers if we will ask for it, trusting in His goodness and not wavering. I imagine that God told many of the dispersed what He told Luke (writer of Acts)—Jesus had predicted dispersion (Acts 1:8); they were fulfilling the words and will of God as witnesses of Jesus, painful as it may be. [It is the same with our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. Prophecies which concern Jesus are unfolding.] Thankfully, the dispersed Jewish Christians at Antioch took James’ letter to heart. Acts 11 reads on to tell us (verse 26) that the believers were “first called Christians at Antioch.” Apparently, despite all they had suffered and despite all the strife described in James, the believers were so liberally blessed with Divine wisdom that the pagan souls around them knew Christ in them. They were… Christians.

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