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Friday, September 29th, 2023
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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Bible Commentaries

Ironside's Notes on Selected BooksIronside's Notes

- James

by Henry Allen Ironside


It was F. W. Grant, the able and conscientious Bible expositor whose works have been of inestimable value to unnumbered thousands of God’s beloved children, who drew attention, some years before his home-call in 1902, to the fact that in the New Testament we have an Epistle written by Jacob to the descendants of Israel! For our English name James is really the equivalent of Jacob (Jacobos in Greek), and is the same as Jacques in French, Iago in Italian, Diego in Spanish, and other forms in many different languages. But the meaning is ever the same, “the supplanter,” or “heel-catcher”-the “tripper-up.” This is what Jacob of old was. “He took his brother by the heel in the womb” (Hosea 12:3), and he was ever crafty and tricky until renewed by divine grace when he became Israel, “a prince with God.”

There were two called James, or Jacob, among the twelve apostles who were selected by our Lord on earth: James the son of Zebedee, the brother of John the beloved disciple, and James the son of Alpheus, brother of Judas, not Iscariot. Apparently neither of these wrote the Epistle we are to consider. Certainly the first did not, for he was slain by Herod very soon after Pentecost. James the Less, as the other is generally called, has been thought by some to be the writer of this letter. But the greater consensus of opinion credits it to another Jacob altogether-James the brother of our Lord after the flesh. (1) This is the one who occupied so prominent a place in the Jerusalem church, as mentioned in the book of Acts. He was considered by the early Church as a son of Mary and Joseph, born after Jesus came, who is called her first-born. In later years, when the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity began to be promulgated, it was suggested that James was a son of Joseph by a former marriage, and so only a half-brother of our Lord. But the Scriptures appear to negative this idea. See particularly Matthew 12:46-47; Matthew 13:55; Mark 3:31-32; Luke 8:19-20; and 1 Corinthians 9:5. All these passages would seem to prove conclusively that Mary had other children besides Jesus. We are told in John 7:5 that these brethren did not believe in the Messianic claims of Jesus during the time preceding His resurrection. But after He rose from the dead He appeared to James (1 Corinthians 15:7), and as a result of this, undoubtedly, he, whom Paul calls so definitely “James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19), became a devoted follower of Him whom he had not understood before. It is evident from the record in the book of Acts that this man soon became an outstanding leader among the Christians in Jerusalem, so much so that some going from there to the churches founded by Paul are said to have come from James (Galatians 2:12), although he had already disavowed having authorized them to use his name as an endorsement of their legal teaching (Acts 15:24).

The fact that his name is mentioned first in Galatians 2:9: “James, Cephas, and John, who-seemed to be pillars,” is significant, and indicates the prominent place he held in the church at Jerusalem. We may dismiss, however, as mere unfounded tradition the story handed down from early days that he was consecrated by the apostles as the first bishop of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he occupied the position of moderator at the council held to determine the attitude of that church toward the missionary work of Paul and Barnabas, as narrated in Acts 15:0. It was he who summed up the testimony given, and suggested the writing of a letter to assure Christians from among the nations that they were not considered as under obligation to observe Jewish customs.

That James himself was to the last intensely Jewish is evident from the advice he gave Paul when he came to Jerusalem bringing alms for his nation. James suggested that Paul should be at charges for some brethren who were about to complete their Nazariteship, and Paul was preparing to do this as being made all things to all men so that he might win some, when he was arrested and put in duress.

Many, besides Martin Luther, have thought they detected contradictory teaching in the letter of James, to that of Paul as set forth in Romans and Galatians; but a careful examination of these letters will show that they were treating of altogether different subjects. Paul was dwelling on justification before God; James on justification before men. Had Luther seen this in his early days and put more stress upon it, he might have saved many of his followers from resting on mere credulity instead of knowing the reality of saving faith.

It is not possible to decide with any certainty just when the Epistle of James was written. Many have supposed it was the earliest New Testament book, designed to bridge the gulf between the Old and New Dispensations, and so to prepare the way for Paul’s gospel which was to follow. In so writing I do not mean to intimate that Paul preached a different gospel to that of the other apostles, for this he, himself, vehemently denies in Galatians 1:6-9. But the risen Lord gave to him a fuller understanding of the results of the work of Christ than had been revealed previously. He alone speaks of justification from all things, rather than mere forgiveness, precious as that is.

It is quite possible that James wrote very shortly after Pentecost, and yet his letter presupposes a reasonably full acquaintance with the great truths of Christianity and its diffusion throughout the entire world where the people of Israel were scattered.

Because of this, others have concluded that, instead of being the first inspired message to the twelve tribes in the new age, it may have been written quite late, after several of Paul’s epistles were in circulation, notably that to the Romans. In this case the teaching of justification by works in Chapter 3 would be designed to correct a misunderstanding bordering on antinomianism on the part of some, who were pushing Paul’s teaching to an extreme which he never intended.

The letter was addressed, not to any individual church or group of churches, as such, but to the twelve tribes of Israel in the dispersion, those twelve tribes of whom Paul speaks in his address before Agrippa (Acts 26:7). To these James, or Jacob, their own brother after the flesh, wrote, putting before them the claims of Jesus the Lord of glory. The church and the synagogue were not yet fully separated from each other. Many believing Israelites mingled with their Jewish brethren in the synagogue services, where there was considerable liberty permitted for those of diverse views to express themselves. But these considerations should not lead any Christian to ignore or look lightly upon this Epistle, for, after all, in the Body of Christ all distinctions between Jew and Gentile are done away; and although there were Jewish groups of believers who did not fraternize fully with Gentile Christians, they were one in Christ whether they realized it or not. And all moral and spiritual truth, wherever found, is for us who now believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and own Him as our Head.

The theme of the Epistle is “A Living Faith” a faith that is evidenced by righteous living and godly behavior.

The five chapters seem to present five divisions and may be designated as follows:

Chapter 1-Victorious Faith.

Chapter 2-Manifested Faith.

Chapter 3-Controlling and Energizing Faith.

Chapter 4-Submissive Faith.

Chapter 5-Patient and Expectant Faith.

Throughout the Epistle we will recognize a very close connection between its instruction and that given by our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:0 to 7). It deals not with deep and abstruse doctrinal themes but with practical Christian ethics.

1 Many think of these two as identical, and there is a bare possibility that such may be the case. Writing on the Epistle of Jude many years ago, I expressed myself as fully persuaded of this, but further study has made me feel this position is probably wrong. In my booklet on Jude I have allowed the view to stand which I then held, but would urge the reader to weigh carefully the other view and to accept that which seems to be most reliable.

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