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by Paul E. Kretzmann
The General Epistle of James
The last seven epistles of the New Testament are known as the general, or catholic, epistles, being called catholic, universal, or circular, because they were not written to any single congregation, city, or nation, but to believers everywhere. "The early writers of the Church, who introduced the term, probably meant it to indicate that these letters were more general in their contents and purpose than those of Paul, who directed his epistles to certain named churches or individuals, while Peter, John, James, and Jude addressed whole groups of churches."
The author does not definitely identify himself, at least not so far as people of a later age are concerned, since he simply calls himself James, or Jacobus, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, James 1:1. But although there are still some doubts, yet the probability is generally admitted that the author is James the Less, Mark 15:40, the son of Alphaeus and Mary, Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13; Matthew 27:56-61. Many commentators think that he is to be identified with James, the brother of Jesus, surnamed the Just, Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:19. The reason why this man is now generally believed to have been the author is this, that he was the only man occupying a position of authority such as is implied in this letter. See Galatians 1:18-19; Acts 12:17; Galatians 2:9-12; Acts 15:4-29; 1 Corinthians 15:7. The supposition is that James the Less, after the death of the elder James, Acts 12:2-17, was the head of the congregation in Jerusalem, and as such held a position of power and trust which gave him a wide influence.
The letter is addressed "to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad," that is, to the Jewish Christians in the Dispersion, who lived outside of Palestine, and especially outside of Judea and Jerusalem. Of these there were many thousands, Acts 21:22, and they were exposed to many trials of their faith, a fact which imposed upon them the exercise of great patience, James 1:2-4; James 5:7-18. The condition of the congregations as described in the letter makes it probable that it was written sometime in the sixties of the first century, and, there being unmistakable references throughout to the Gospel according to Matthew, the date must be placed somewhere between 63 and 69 A. D. The place at which it was written was very likely Jerusalem, the city in which James the Less lived until the advancing armies of the Romans caused the Christians to flee from the city.
So far as characteristic features of the letter are concerned, it differs in various ways from the other epistles of the New Testament, often reminding the reader of the proverb writings of the Old Testament. "The epistle is less doctrinal than any other in the New Testament. The purpose of the writer is not so much to instruct as to exhort and admonish. 'This is the Epistle of Holy Living. Great stress is laid upon works, not apart from faith, but as both the proof and fruit of faith. ' The style of the epistle is sententious and forcible, passing swiftly, and sometimes without any apparent logical formation, from one topic to another. Boldly denouncing sin in strong terms and polished, poetical language, St. James reminds us of one of the old Hebrew prophets."
The letter has no definite outline, being a pastoral instruction more than a doctrinal discussion. After the address we may distinguish eight groups of admonitions, joined in a rather loose fashion, all presenting the topic: The Christian as he should be, a perfect man of God:
1. An admonition to steadfastness in temptations which test the faith.
2. An admonition to the readers to prove themselves genuine doers of the Word.
3. A warning to the rich not to despise the poor.
4. A warning against a dead, fruitless faith.
5. A warning against sins of the tongue.
6. An exhortation to avoid quarrelsomeness.
7. An admonition to humility and mercy.
8. An admonition to patience in view of the second coming of the Lord and to willing love toward the brethren.
Many Bible-students have been struck by an apparent discrepancy between the letters of Paul and the present epistle, since it might appear that the doctrine of James conflicts with that taught with such emphasis by Paul concerning justification by faith alone. But there is no real conflict. Paul writes against the self-righteous man, who does not want to be justified and saved by the grace of God in Christ Jesus alone, but insists on good works as being necessary for obtaining salvation, James writes against the vain, foolish man, who trusts for salvation in a barren orthodoxy, imagining that a mere belief of the intellect and a mere profession of the mouth without any works is saving faith.
the Fifth Week after Easter