James 1:1

We are thrilled to be with you, beginning a new semester at Southern Seminary. Many of you have new fall schedules before you. Many of you have friends and loved ones, relatives who are beginning new academic terms. It’s not always coincident with us beginning a new expositional study, but after about three years in the book of Hebrews, verse by verse, we turn this morning to begin in the book of James. If you find the book of James, which conveniently is the next book in our English Bible translations after the book of Hebrews, we’ll begin our study. 

The title of the book is quite simple and straightforward: the letter of James. In many Bible translations and in its published format, you will see a reference to the epistle of James as one of the Catholic epistles. The Catholic epistles refer to the fact that even as many of the other epistles are addressed to a specific congregation, especially as you look for instance at the majority of the letters of Paul as you have the letter to the churches at Thessalonica and Corinth and Philippi and Ephesus, here you do not have a letter addressed in terms of its designation by the recipient but rather by the author.

In other words, there is a clue to us here at the very beginning of this study, that it is the identity and role of James as an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ that is going to be crucial to our understanding of this letter. This is a letter not written to a specific church that is then shared with the entire Christian Church, but rather this was addressed from the very beginning to all of the churches. The letter begins, as we are familiar with Greco-Roman letters beginning, with the identity, the sender: James. James identifies himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the 12 tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.” (1:1)

As we begin our study, the book of James is going to be very interesting as we keep in mind that this has been one of the most controversial books in the entire New Testament. It was controversial from the start and became far more controversial in the 16th century and beyond. The reason for this is that if we are not careful, and if we do not practice a good process of interpreting the Scripture, a good discipline of interpreting the scripture, then we can fall into the trap of believing that there are certain texts that are at odds with other texts. In particular classically, it has been suggested that there is a conflict between the gospel as understood by the apostle Paul and the gospel as understood by James. 

I said the controversy was ignited in a big way in the 16th century, and of course you’ll recognize that that is the century of the Reformation. In the Reformation, the gospel was recovered and it was asserted in terms of all of its Pauline and New Testament purity. There were many who were involved in the defense of the gospel at that time who were concerned that James appeared not to affirm many of the same things that Paul affirmed, but rather to be looking at the gospel from a very different direction. Luther himself, Martin Luther, the great magisterial reformer, referred to James quite infamously as “a right strawy epistle”. In other words, he saw it as “straw”, over and against the meat of Paul. 

There have been others who have suggested that the book of James is in many ways, a corrective to many misunderstandings of the gospel in the early church. As the most faithful Bible interpreters have understood from the very beginning, the Holy Spirit has given us not only individual books but the Canon of Scripture, that is the entire collection of scripture, in particular, the Canon of the New Testament. The Holy Spirit who inspired every single word of every one of these writings, superintended the fact that we need both of these witnesses, we need both Paul and James. Furthermore, even as we begin our study, we affirm our understanding that the authority and perfection of Scripture requires that we understand that there is a consistent understanding that if there appears to be some sort of contradiction or contrary word within the text, the problem is not in the text, but in our understanding. As the church has matured in its understanding of the book of James, it has come to the blessed realization that what we have in James is the gospel applied. Even as you have the recognition that the apostle Paul was inspired to define the gospel in such clear terms as being that our justification is by faith alone, along comes James to remind us that faith without works is dead.

When we see a book like this, not addressed to a specific congregation by which it is known, but rather designated by its author, then the question immediately comes to us, “Who is this author? Who is this James?” In the New Testament you already know of several James’. There were two who were with Jesus almost from the beginning. One was the brother of John, the son of Zebedee. There were other James’ also found within the New Testament, but from the very beginning of the Christian tradition, it has been understood that this particular James is James, the brother of Jesus Christ.

Now, when we think about the story of Jesus, the account of the life and ministry of Jesus, and then we think about the account of the earliest church in the book of Acts, and then we think about the continuation of the story of the church in the New Testament, we recognize that James plays a very, very important part. There is no reason internally or externally to believe that the author of this epistle is anyone other than James. As a matter of fact, there are both external and internal references and evidence to indicate that this is none other than James, the brother of Jesus. And of course, when we say the brother of Jesus, we mean the half brother of Jesus. The main opponent to the understanding that this James is James, the brother of Jesus, is the fact that the Roman Catholic church, teaching the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, has argued for centuries that Jesus had no brothers. That indeed, when there are references to those who are the brothers of Christ in the New Testament, they’re actually his cousins.

Well, let’s just make a couple things clear as we begin. There is absolutely no claim in the New Testament nor implication, nor inference of any sort that Mary remained a virgin married to Joseph after the conception and birth of Christ. As a matter of fact, in the infancy narratives, you have a very clear reference to the fact that she kept herself a virgin until the birth of Christ. Not only that, there are internal references within the gospels to those who are the brothers of Christ and the word used there is brother in the sense that we would use the word brother. Not just in the generalized sense, in terms of fellowship, but in the familial sense of a blood relative. If this is indeed James, then as we know the New Testament, we know that there is a particular meaning here to the fact that this is written by the brother of Christ.

That means, before we get into the actual text of the letter, we need to consider just a few things about what the New Testament has told us already about the family of Jesus, including his brothers, in terms of his earthly ministry. We look to a text such as John 7:5, and here we read “for not even his brothers believed in him.” So John tells us in John 7:5 that there were many who heard Jesus were moved by him, were intrigued by him, who saw the signs and miracles. Even as many in the crowds believed in him, not even his brothers believed in him. It was a comprehensive statement, not one of Christ’s brothers believed in him at this point, as we read in John 7. We look at the gospel of Mark 3:21. There we read concerning the family of Jesus, “when his family heard it, they went out to seize him for they were saying ‘He is out of his mind.’” So in other words, the revolutionary message of Jesus so scandalized the family of Christ that they sought to do what families do when scandalized by one of their members, to take him away and to try to explain it away. Mark is very clear about this, “they went out to seize him for they were saying ‘He’s out of his mind.’” So, from John 7 and Mark 3 we have the indication, not only that his brothers did not believe in him, an emphatic statement, but that not believing in him, they were scandalized by him. They sought even to explain him away by saying, “He’s out of his mind.”

Now, there are many things we could trace out from this. One of them is that this is also one of the clear internal references to the fact that Jesus clearly claimed deity from the very beginning of his ministry. Liberal scholars throughout the last three or so centuries have tried to argue that it was the church’s reinterpretation of the Scriptures, it was the apostles’ later revision of the gospel in which Christ claims divinity. But what you see here is one of the internal evidences, when it says in John 7, that even his brothers didn’t believe. What was it they didn’t believe? It was the claims he made concerning himself. When it says in Mark 3 that his family was scandalized by what he said and when they tried to seize him saying, “He’s out of his mind”, why do they think he was out of his mind? It’s because he was clearly claiming to be deity and acting as if he were. 

Thenhen you have a very remarkable transformation. It’s a transformation that has to be found as you look closely at the New Testament. Because one of the things that we must always keep in mind when we’re looking at a text like this, or at a question like this, is that we have the testimony of the Scriptures. As we look to the Scriptures, we have the evidence of what the Holy Spirit inspired that we are to receive. We do not have the totality of the experience of the early church, which means obviously, as John says at the end of his gospel, if you were to collect everything Jesus said and did into books, the world itself could not contain all of them. There are times where we see a reference in Scripture, and then we realize, this is absolutely astounding.

Something huge had to happen between point A and point B. Point A  in this case is the fact that not one of his family members believed in him, and that his brothers in particular are identified in John as not believing in him. Then you come to 1 Corinthians 15, the great passage in which Paul speaks to the priority of the gospel and of the power of the resurrection of Christ. He begins this way in 1 Corinthians 15:1, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as a first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas,” that’s Peter, “then to the twelve.” (1 Cor. 15:1-5) Then notice carefully, “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” (1 Cor. 15:6-7)

James, simply mentioned here by name, because simply to mention his name is all that is necessary. This is clearly not one of the James who was in the original disciples of Christ. This is James, identified as one as an apostle who stands out simply by the reference to his name as being worthy and necessary of this inclusion. “Then he appeared to James.” 

James, the half brother of Jesus, as you know, becomes the central leader of the church in Jerusalem. The one who, along with his other brother, did not believe in Christ, who considered him insane and tried to explain that he’s out of his mind. By the time you get to 1 Corinthians 15, we are told that Christ appeared to him, and then we understand the transformation. The central event, the transformation of James from one who thought that his half brother was insane to when he became the great pillar of the church, was his knowledge of the resurrected Christ. The resurrection changes everything. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead changed everything in the life of James. When the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 recites how he became an apostle and the centrality of the resurrection of Christ to the gospel, he refers to the fact that as Christ made his series of appearances, he appeared to James and then to all the apostles. “Last of all,” Paul says, “as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Cor. 15:8) We also have another very important reference to this James from Paul found in the book of Galatians. As you look at Galatians 1:19, there is no mystery whatsoever that Paul leaves concerning who James is. Galatians 1:19, “But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.”

Now it’s very helpful to us because we would think that’s who James is. We believe that’s who James is, but we don’t have to connect any dots here. The dots are all connected. This is Paul who says, now when I mention James you be very clear, this is James, the Lord’s brother. James fulfills a very important role in the early church as is made clear in the book of Acts. And in particular, to make reference to the most important passage in the book of Acts, you look at Acts chapter 15. This passage is known as the ‘Jerusalem Council’. James plays a very important role and that very important role is underscored with some particular language that we will find when we look to this passage. 

This was the great question about how the Gentiles are to be incorporated into the church and in the dispensation of the gospel, how it is that the Gentiles are to be included. Must they become Jews in order to become followers of Christ, faithful Christian disciples? And of course the answer was no, but this council was necessary in order to determine that. To answer a basic question about circumcision, a basic question about the identity of the gospel, the leaders of the church are gathered here. What you find in the book of Acts chapter 15 is the chronology of this particular council. Now look at verse 13. As a matter of fact, look back at verse 12 first, “and all the assembly fell silent and they listened to Barnabas and Paul, as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘Brothers listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles to take from them a people for his name. And with this, the words of the prophets agree just as it is written,’ ‘After this all will return, I will rebuild the tent of David that had fallen.I will rebuild its ruins. I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord. That all the Gentiles and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,’ says the Lord who makes these things known from of old.’” Then look very carefully at the first words of verse 19. “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them, to abstain from the things polluted by idols and from sexual immorality and from what has been strangled and from blood for, from ancient generations, Moses has had in every city, those who proclaim him for he was read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

Now the conclusion of the Jerusalem council is so important to the history of the church and frankly, to our own inclusion in the gospel of Christ and how we understand that gospel: the new covenant over and against and as the fulfillment of the old covenant. For our purposes in this study, the most important words are those that begin verse 19, which in context are thunders in their implications. There James says, “Therefore, my judgment is”. In other words, the stature of James in the early church and in particular in the Jerusalem church and amongst the apostles was so massive that when James says, “Therefore, my judgment is,” that’s a massive judgment, as is made clear as you see in verse 23.

Look at verse 22 first, “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders with the whole church to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter, ‘The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, Greetings.” And then they go on to relate the determinations of the Jerusalem council. So in other words, you put together verse 19 and verse 22. In verse 19, James says, “Therefore, my judgment is,” and then to verse 22, “then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders with the whole church.”

So what do we know about James? We know from seeking a comprehensive picture of him from the New Testament, before we get to the letter that bears his name, that this is the brother of Christ, specifically the half brother of Christ, the son of Joseph and Mary. And that he, along with his other brothers during their earthly ministry of Jesus, did not believe in him, but that after the resurrection of Christ from the dead, when Christ appeared to James, James not only believes in him, but becomes an apostle one who is sent out with the authority of Christ as a leader of the church. And he becomes the pillar of the church of Jerusalem, such that when the Jerusalem council is held, James says, “My judgment is,” and it becomes the judgment of the church.

We know something else about James, and there is of course, many other references to him in the book of Acts. But most importantly, what we know about James comes from the earliest historians of the Christian era, who tell us that during the governorship of Festus, James was martyred. The chronological year of that martyrdom would’ve been in AD 62. So the earthly life of James came to an end, according to the best historical sources, as he was martyred for his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the very Lord who was his brother, who in whom he did not believe until he saw him when raised from the dead and then gave his life to serve as an apostle.

The date of the letter of the book of James therefore is likely between that of 30 and 62 AD. It’s a pretty wide span, but it is adequate for our understanding to date it in the earliest history of the early church. And thus, when James writes this letter, he writes it to a church that has experienced already, as we know from verse 1, a dispersion. “James, a servant of God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” James identifies himself, not as the brother of Christ. It’s a very interesting thing here. Paul, as you saw in Galatians chapter 1, refers to James as the brother of Jesus, but otherwise he’s referred to as James. And when he here, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, begins a letter written to the whole church, he identifies himself, not as James, the brother of Christ, but as, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”. 

It is a stunningly powerful way of making a point.The most important thing about James is not that he was the brother of Christ, but the servant of Christ. The most important thing about James in his own self understanding is that he was a doulos, a servant or a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. He here refers to the one who by the flesh is his half brother. And instead of saying, “I was the brother to Jesus,” he says, “I am the servant of God,” and notice the title, “the Lord Jesus Christ.” Again, the centrality of the resurrection is so important as Paul makes clear in Philippians chapter 2, on the basis of his obedience, even at death, God has highly exalted him in the resurrection and given him the name that is above every name. And that is the title of Lord, promising that one day, “every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ Lord to the glory of God the Father.” 

This James, who knows that the most important thing about himself is not whose brother he was, but whose servant he is, he writes to the entire church. Following the traditions of Greco-Roman letters, he begins by identifying himself. By the way, that would be very helpful. And as a matter of fact, when we receive letters today, you’ll remember what those quaint things are. They’re printed on paper, they begin “Dear somebody” and end “Sincerely” or something like that, you still want to know who the letter’s from. You can’t understand the letter until you know who it’s from. So we look to the bottom of the letter, the Greeks had a better system. The Greco-Roman system began in their conventions of letter writing by beginning with the sender, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”, and then the address, “to the church of the Lord, Jesus Christ”. To the church here, the church there? No. The language of James is “to the 12 tribes in the dispersion, Greetings”. As we will follow word by word and verse by verse through the book of James, we will discover it is in every syllable saturated with the gospel, saturated with Christian truth.

It is written to the church, not just to a specific congregation in a specific place in a specific time, but written to the church throughout all the ages everywhere it is found. He refers to the church as, “the twelve tribes in the dispersion”. Again, the meaning of this could be easily passed over, but it is thunderous and earth shaking. James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. The church in Jerusalem was the congregation, of course, where the gospel was first preached, in terms of the congregation there formed in the aftermath of the resurrection and the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ, going all the way back to the day of Pentecost. The church in Jerusalem was made up of Jews who had come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and the Jerusalem church becomes the center of Jewish Christianity.

Thus, when the gospel is then shared with the Gentiles and the door is open to the Gentiles, even the discussion of how the early church is going to understand that, by the leadership of the Holy Spirit, comes to Jerusalem. It can’t be settled anywhere but in Jerusalem. The council is held in Jerusalem and it is the leader of the church in Jerusalem, indeed, James, none other than the brother of Jesus, who says, “my judgment is”, and it became the judgment of the church. 

One of the hardest questions for the early church to figure out is, “What’s the relationship between Israel and the church? What’s the relationship between the Jews who come to know Christ and the Gentiles who come to know salvation in Christ? Are they one people or two people?” And of course you have in the New Testament a symphonic answer to that question. The summary of it is, that as Paul writes. It is the truth that the Gentiles have now been grafted on to the promises made to Israel.

There is no more powerful demonstration of that than when James begins his letter referring, not to Israel, the Israel of old, but rather the new Israel, the church. By referring to the church as the twelve tribes in the dispersion. James knows to whom he is writing. He’s  writing to those who have come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He’s not just writing to Jews who have come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He’s not just writing to Gentiles who come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He has written to all those who by God’s grace have come to know the gospel of Jesus Christ. And they are now the Israel of God.

That doesn’t mean that God does not still have promises made to the nation of Israel under the covenant of old. It does mean that salvation belongs to the Israel of God. The new Israel, made up of all those who buy their confession of faith and belief in Christ now find themselves amongst the twelve tribes in the dispersion. It’s incredible. James doesn’t say, “I’m James, the brother of Jesus.” He says, “James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” He doesn’t say, “I’m writing to the church.” He does say that, but in different words by saying, “to the twelve tribes in the dispersion”. The twelve tribes, the new Israel, the people of the new covenant and the dispersion, they’re everywhere. 

Now the word dispersion is not an innocent word. It is a sinister word in the sense that it means that Christians have been scattered about. We know that even as the word dispersion was used in both the Old and the New Testaments, particularly in the New Testament, it refers to the fact that Christians have no homeland. Paul will say, our citizenship is in heaven. Peter will begin his letter by suggesting that we are aliens residing in places everywhere. So the church is not made up of a national people, not in terms of earthly kingdoms. The church is not geographically designated. The church is not locally limited in any way. The church is made up of the 12 tribes, the new Israel dispersed in the dispersion. In other words, James, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is saying, “I’m writing to Christians wherever they are found, to Christian churches, wherever they’ve been dispersed. I’m writing by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to all believers and to all churches everywhere at all times until Jesus, my brother, comes. Greetings.” Just a few words.

Most of the time when we begin a letter, we just begin it in order to get to where we want to go. We dispense with the niceties in order to get to the point. The formalities are just that. These are not formalities. These are not literary niceties. This is James, the brother of Jesus, who says, “The most important thing you need to know about me is that I am a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. To whom am I writing? The new Israel, the church dispersed wherever it’s found, whenever it lives, Greetings.” 

Now don’t you want to know what follows that? It will be our privilege to learn every word together. Let’s pray:

Our Father, we are so thankful for the power of your Word. Every single word inspired by your Spirit and every single word is not only meaningful, but vital, essential in our understanding. Father, thank you for this which you have given us by the gift of our brother, James, the servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Father, we will wait expectantly to hear your Word as you speak by your Word, and we’ll pray that in so doing, you will conform us to the image of Christ by the Spirit in the word. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.