Recently I wrote and published an article on the podcast blog titled, “The Post-Pandemic Church” where I covered some important information about how the church should emerge faithfully from the current pandemic. We don’t have time to read that article as a part of the message today. Go to the article to learn more. The fact is that we need to endure this period of time and then find a way to emerge stronger and more active in the body of Christ than ever before. This pandemic has allowed us to see the many aspects of our work and worship as a church that we took for granted. With the restrictions and cautions in place limiting us, we realize just how much we should cherish the church and its purpose in our lives. Basically, the article that I wrote is a call to return to faithful service in fulfilling our worship and work as a church, while also continuing to be Christ in our communities. I would encourage you to read that this week if you have about 20 minutes. The task before us is not easy, but we must proceed and make progress by faith.
We would be ignorant to say that the spread of the virus has not drastically changed the way that we as a church operate from a functional standpoint, but at the same time, we are called to face this difficult span with virtues that come from a life committed to Christ. Elders, preachers, teachers in the Lord’s church are asking vital questions about how to minister to and care for the members of the church, while we have been separated, social distancing, postponing assemblies, dismissing Bible classes, and yet doing our best to use the technology available to stay in touch. We are washing our hands, disinfecting everything, sanitizing surfaces, wearing masks, standing 6 feet apart and we have altered the way that we live our own lives to avoid being a statistic to the pandemic. I believe that in most places where Christians have started to gather again that much wisdom has been used to make the most of the opportunities before us in spite of these changes. Nevertheless, I do believe that we will feel the effect and the aftermath of the pandemic for a very long time. Some of these things positive, while some very negative. How do we again approach our communities to share the good news of Jesus? How do we get back to doing life according to the “new normal”? Does God’s word speak to this matter at all? How would the church have responded if this occurred during the first century? These are all valid and applicable questions for us to consider. I believe we can find the answers.
I want to study with you through the book of James over the next few months as a part of the 5th season, and there are many reasons that this book fits such a time as this one. Today we are going to study chapter 1:1 of James to offer an introduction and some insight into the applicable nature of this book to our lives today. I have titled this series, “Dispersed & Dedicated”. Many have called the book of James “practical Christianity”, but I would add that it is tactical Christianity where we strategically make plans for remaining true to our spiritual calling in life while facing every obstacle that is put in our path. Practice makes perfect, but we must carefully and courageously move (tactically) forward by faith. James writes this book with the sole purpose of reaching out to brethren in the Lord that were congregants of the church in Jerusalem where he labored with them. They were dispersed everywhere and he needed to make certain that they were not losing hope during the great persecution of the first-century church and to offer some strong teaching for how they ought to emerge from trials, tests, and temptations that they were up against. Granted, persecution for our faith and a viral pandemic is not the same, but many of us have been tried in our faith, struggling with sin, battling isolation, trying to overcome fear, missing spiritual fellowship, barely staying the course. On some level, we have watched Christians suffer persecution even through this pandemic. Some are losing faith altogether and deeming the church irrelevant, with little to no hope of returning to worship and service. This is a reflection of the condition of their weak faith in Christ and their unwillingness to find ways to remain an active part of the kingdom of God. It’s not about me and you, it’s about bringing glory to God as His church.
We need this spiritual encouragement from the word of God in the book of James. While we are still limited in our time together, we need to take advantage of every moment to be built up in our faith. I dedicate this series to that goal and I pray that you find this teaching meaningful to your daily walk with the Lord. If you listen closely you can hear the heart of James aching to learn that his brethren are walking in harmony with the will of God and not falling prey to false teaching and sinful behavior never to be practiced by those in Christ Jesus. Let us read the text for today:
“James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.”
James, Bond-Servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ
James refers to himself as the bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, yet this James is the (half) brother of Jesus our Lord (Gal. 1:19). He doesn’t use this as a means to bolster his reputation or gain acceptance for his message. He simply acknowledged that he served the Lord Christ and was a slave to righteousness (Romans 6:17-18, 22). Apparently, when James sent this letter, he expected his audience to know who he was, but he wanted to be recognized only as a humble servant of God and Christ.
He is not to be confused with the other men called James in the New Testament, namely, James the son of Alpheus (James the Less and an apostle), James the son of Zebedee (one of the sons of thunder and an apostle), and James the father of Judas (Judas, not Iscariot called Thaddeus and an apostle). One of these was already martyred and the other men named James do not fit the timeframe or character of this letter. This was written by James, the Lord’s half brother.
This James was the oldest brother to Jesus, properly named Jacob in the original language, born to Joseph and Mary among other brothers and sisters (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). His brother’s names were Joseph, Simon, and Judas. Several times when Mary is mentioned in the gospels, she is referred to as the mother of James (Mark 16:1).
Early in his life, James did not accept the ministry of Jesus and he was not a believer (John 7:3-5). In fact, those closest to him said that he belonged in a looney bin for the things that he was teaching (Mark 3:21). Jesus would reply to those from his own town, “A prophet is not without honor except in His own country, among His own relatives and in His own house”. (Mark 6:4). Imagine being a brother to Jesus and growing up always hearing, “Why can’t you be like Jesus?” As frustrating as this was for his brothers, the same question is asked of us and we must reply and hopefully be a dedicated follower that becomes like the Master. Jesus never caused his parents any anxiety or trouble other than when at the age of 12 he was left behind in Jerusalem and three days later was found in the temple asking questions and providing answers to the religious leaders. They knew even before He was born that He was the Son of God and that when He came He would be about His Father’s business in the kingdom work that was assigned to Him. In His youth never caused trouble, never lied, never lost his temper, was always obedient and he helped his father in his carpentry shop until he was 30 years old. While there are many extra-biblical records in apocryphal writings that suggest Jesus performed miracles in his youth that would have been witnessed by his siblings, they are all speculation and fraudulent (everything from making real birds out of clay to stretching a wooden board for a man that cut it too short). We are told that the first miracle of Jesus was turning water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. Otherwise, Jesus lived a regular life among his brothers and sisters, being obedient to His parents. When Jesus entered his ministry his siblings did not follow him. After Jesus died, James and his brothers are not at the scene of the cross either. They are nowhere to be found! Jesus actually has to entrust the care of his mother to John, the disciple that he loved as he breathed his last.
It is shortly after this that James and his siblings appear to have become followers, and after the resurrection, there was no doubt James was a believer in Jesus. James is said to have been an eyewitness to the Lord after he rose from the dead (I Cor. 15:7). James and his brothers are present with the apostles as they prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit and the start of the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14). James then wholeheartedly served Jesus and remained committed to him for the rest of his life based on the biblical record, and his valiant faith was on display when he was martyred for his belief in Jesus in A.D. 62.
His death and the events surrounding his passing from this life, show his undying love for the Savior. According to the historian Josephus, a Jewish council condemned him "on the charge of breaking the Law (of Moses)" and they plotted a political murder in the absence of imperial rule. Another account of James' death was reported by Eusebius. It says “Because of his exceeding great justice he was called the Just, and Oblias, which signifies in Greek, Bulwark of the people and ‘Justice’. When James was questioned by the Scribes and Pharisees, ‘What is the gate of Jesus?’; he replied that he was the Savior. On account of these words, some believed that Jesus is the Christ. But certain sects of the Jews mentioned above did not believe either in a resurrection or in one’s coming to give to every man according to his works in judgment. But as many as believed did so on account of James. The Scribes and Pharisees were troubled by this so they came to James and made a plan to take him to the pinnacle of the temple so that he could be clearly seen and heard and they were asking him to renounce his faith in Christ before the audience so that they could stop the people from believing and following Jesus. He agreed to speak to the crowd. The aforesaid Scribes and Pharisees, therefore, placed James upon the pinnacle of the temple, and cried out to him and said: You just one, in whom we ought all to have confidence, forasmuch as the people are led astray after Jesus, the crucified one, declare to us, what is the gate of Jesus.’ And he answered with a loud voice,’ Why do ye ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man? He himself sits in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and is about to come upon the clouds of heaven.’ And when many were fully convinced and gloried in the testimony of James, and said, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ these same Scribes and Pharisees said again to one another,’ We have done badly in supplying such testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, in order that they may be afraid to believe him.’ So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to each other, ‘Let us stone James the Just.’ And they began to stone him, for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned and knelt down and said, ‘I entreat thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ These were the very words of Jesus when he was being crucified. And while they were thus stoning him one of the priests of the sons of Rechab, the son of the Rechabites, who are mentioned by Jeremiah the prophet, cried out, saying, ‘Stop, what are doing? The just one is praying for you. And one of them, who was a fuller, took the club with which he beat out clothes and struck the just man on the head. And thus he suffered martyrdom. And they buried him on the spot, by the temple, and his monument still remains by the temple. He became a true witness, both to Jews and Greeks, that Jesus is the Christ. (See Eusebius, Church History, Book 2, Chapter 23, pp. 207-209). This is the historical record of the death of James.
James was a devout and righteous man of God and one whose faith needs to be remembered so that we can model our faith after his life in service to Christ Jesus our Lord. Yet many struggle to accept the writing of James saying that his teaching was in stark contrast to the apostle Paul. Paul met with James early on in his ministry (Gal. 1:19) and they were on the same page. You will see that he was a man who was humble and practiced what he preached and his preaching was in harmony with the teachings of Christ. He was a man of prayer and encourages his readers to be as well (James 1:5; 5:16). He was a loving minister to the church. He was also a man of the word and in-depth theology about suffering, sin, temptation, the demonic world, the Law, faith, the church, God, and of Christ.
Martin Luther of the reformation removed James from his Bible and put it in the back in the appendix. He said that the book of James was an epistle of straw (clearly referencing I Cor. 3:11 where Paul speaks of works that would be burned up as straw and would not endure in the judgment). Luther argued that we are saved by grace through faith alone and not by works based on Paul’s teaching and he couldn’t understand how James would say that we are NOT saved by faith alone and that faith without works is a dead faith (James 2:24). The part that he seemed to miss was that faith works through our love for the Lord. Luther said that James mangled the Scriptures, nullifying the grace and faith found in Christ. Ironically, if you reject the writings of James, the Lord’s brother, you might as well remove the Sermon on the Mount from the gospels. James will echo many of the very same teachings that Jesus shared in that lesson. In essence, James is a sermon of a sermon that he first heard from his older brother, Jesus in his early ministry. It is also important to mention that chronologically, James is the first book of the New Testament, dating back as early as A.D. 42. This means that the gospel writers Mark and Matthew might have had access to the inspired writings of James when they wrote their gospel records of the life of Jesus. We will note when a parallel is made between the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of James to prove that they are in harmony and that there is no reason to believe that James and his writing should be discarded. Rather, we have a reinforcing of the greatest sermon ever preached when we read this book from James.
The term “Doulos” used here means slave as opposed to diakonos (deacon, servant). He was a slave of righteousness, a bondservant to God and Christ Jesus our Lord. His service was offered because he was indebted to the Lord for his great love in dying on the cross for the sins of the world. He was bound to the Savior gladly.
The word “bond” gives off the idea of being bound permanently, dedicated forever, committed fully, devoted for life. This speaks of the life that he lived and the death that he died in the Lord (Rev. 14:13)
As a servant, he was a man of deep faith and religious piety. So fervent was his faith that the early church historian Eusebius records that Clement of Alexandria related, "This James, whom the people of old called the Just because of his outstanding virtue” He went on to say that he was one of the first elders in the church at Jerusalem. Among other nicknames that people found fitting for him, he was called, James the Just (Righteous).
It was also reported of James that, “This one was holy from his mother's womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, ate no flesh, never shaved or anointed himself with ointment or bathed (in public bathhouses). He alone had the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies, since indeed he did not use woolen vestments but linen and went alone into the temple and prayed in behalf of the people, insomuch that his knees were reputed to have acquired the hardness of camels' knees in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people.” What a great man of God! What a wonderful example of faith!
Minister to the dispersed church of Jerusalem
This is considered a “general” epistle because James is writing to Christians of Jewish background that are now dislocated from the church in Jerusalem and they are going through some overwhelming trials. The Diaspora first occurred when the Jews were scattered by enemies in the east and west that took them into captivity and only a remnant returned to Jerusalem proper. When James writes his letter, Rome had taken over much of the world, and Jews were relocated elsewhere and they would travel back to Jerusalem for holy days, feasts, and religious observances. The real dispersion forcing the Christians to go abroad was occurring due to the persecution of these Jews that were converted on the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus. The text tells us that about three thousand of those Jews that heard the first gospel sermon believed and were baptized being added by the Lord to the church (Acts 2:42-47). As the persecution brought on by devout Jews attempted to force Christians to adhere to the Law of Moses instead of the law of Christ, they would be accused of breaking the law and punished, many of them fled in order to freely practice their faith and to preserve their lives. When Paul gained approval to persecute the church, beating Christians, dragging the disciples of Christ off to jail, and having Stephen stoned to death, Acts 8:1-4 states that persecution began specifically against the church at Jerusalem, which directly impacted the saints where James ministered.
James is not writing to one specific church but to dispersed believers. When it mentions that this letter is to the “twelve tribes” this is in direct reference to the Israel of God, the church of Christ (Gal. 6:16), those who have been baptized in water for the remission of sins and are now Abraham’s descendants (Gal. 3:26-27). This is not written to some Christian subgroup of Jews, but those who received the circumcision of the heart (Rom 2:28-29) and are Jews inwardly.
James was a leader (pillar) among these Christians and now felt an urgent need to communicate some critical instruction to help them endure the test (Gal. 2:9). In fact, the word for “dispersed abroad” is the word diaspora and it literally means the sowing as in seeds. Every time a Christian is scattered in another place the seed of the gospel of Jesus can be planted and grow fruit. A scattering doesn’t have to be negative.
James was so active in the church that he was the one informed about the release of Peter from prison (Acts 12:17) Which indicates that he served an important role in the early church of Christ.
He headed up the Jerusalem council when the matter of circumcision was being considered as a requirement for someone to become a Christian (Acts 15:13, 19). He took the role of giving an answer to this important matter and said that Gentiles should not be required to be physically circumcised. We learn from the NT that the circumcision of Christ is the only one that applies to those wanting to be a Christian. That circumcision is baptism wherein the body of sin (flesh) is done away with by the blood of Jesus washing away our sins. Then we are rising up out of the water a brand new creature through faith in the working of God (Col. 2:11-13) who raised Christ from the dead. We are made alive spiritually, no longer dead in our sins. The last time we see James is in Acts 21, where again he is gathered to hear the good news about the way the gospel had reached the Gentile converts and there was much rejoicing. Praise God.
Greetings were never uncommon among believers, especially when writing letters (Acts 15:23). The meaning of the word “Greetings” is to be joyful or rejoice. The end of verse one is really an introduction for our next lesson on verses 2-4, where James will tell the church to count every circumstance as a joyous one, no matter how dark or how drear. Not that it is enjoyable, but endurable because of the joys that await us.
As straightforward as the message will be that James is going to deliver, he starts out with a joyful greeting to express his heartfelt desire for them to be found in good standing and he wished them well.
Brethren are instructed to greet one another not as a ritual or mundane practice but to offer an initial blessing upon meeting or addressing one another with a view to their welfare and cause for rejoicing.
Today, we need to get back to the practice of extending a warm greeting when we are in contact or communicate with one another. We should always start with a positive joyful introduction in order to express our purpose of sharing our joy in the faith (Romans 16).
Imagine if instead of saying “hello” or “greetings” we say to one another “rejoice” or “be joyful”. How would that change our approach to our worship and work for the Lord if we had this steady reminder to rejoice (John 15:7-11).
It is easy to have joy in the good times, but in our next lesson, we will learn how to rejoice even when we go through the most challenging trials and tribulations. While the times we face may not be joyous, there is a hope that we rejoice in, even if death be our lot for the cause of Christ.
As we wrap up this introduction to the book of James and anticipate all that we will learn together, let us remember the faith of James. With every word of this book, we are going to sense the passion of the heart of a man of God that longed for his brothers and sisters in Christ to rise above adversity to faithful service.
Our hope and aim are that as we emerge from this pandemic with great courage and strength from these teachings. Instead of growing weary in well-doing, we find that our faith is emboldened to serve the Lord together and find a way to finish the work that God has given us to do as His church. We need to be about our Father’s business.
It is not going to easy to overcome the setbacks that we face in life. But we can start and end with joy because we know the outcome of our faith is eternal life. The momentary light affliction that is before us now, doesn’t compare to the glory that awaits us when we are forever with the Lord.
Are you a servant of God? Do you have the hope of eternal life? Are you struggling with some sin? Do you need the prayers of your brethren to help you through something? How can we help? Please reach out and let me know.