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Thoughts On Understanding The Epistle Of James


By Curtis Pugh

There is disagreement and has been for centuries as to whom James wrote his epistle. This disagreement is not mere impractical academics, but affects the meanings of various statements he wrote and is therefore important to us. Understanding this part of the context of the book should guide our understanding of it. So we furnish this brief consideration of the time and circumstances of James' epistle hoping that it might be a help to the reader in understanding The Epistle of James.

That James wrote early in Christian history is universally agreed upon, probably as early as A.D. 45, making his letter the earliest written of all New Testament Books. As best we can date things, Saul (Paul) had been fetched by Barnabas from Tarsus in A.D. 46 – the year after James wrote – and they had traveled to Antioch in Syria. We know where they were the next year for the Scripture is clear: “Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul: And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch,” (Acts 11:25-26). So the ministry of Paul was in its infancy when James wrote his letter.

Understanding that James did indeed write early in the first Christian century, and if our dates are even remotely correct regarding Paul's early activities, then we can be sure of this: Paul had not at that early date yet received “the abundance of the revelations” he wrote of in 2 Corinthians 12:7. Thus at the time James wrote his epistle which he addressed “to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad,” (James 1:1) neither he nor Paul nor any other follower of the Lamb knew those things that would later be revealed to Paul and others. They were all ignorant of some things: those things that would be later revealed. Prominent in what they did not know was the “mystery” that Jews and Gentiles would be one body. More on that later. (This ignorance regarding Jews and Gentiles certainly colored their understanding of the relationship between the two).

If we keep in mind this ignorance of God's revelation – ignorance because God had not yet revealed many things – and apply it to The Epistle of James it will help us understand much in his letter. We do not mean that James penned error: not at all! But his letter is curious in some respects, not the least of which is the matter of whom he addressed. Did he write to “the twelve tribes” of the Diaspora (dispersion) as lost Jews only or as Christians (not that they were even called that as yet) or did he write to them as a mixed group – some saved some lost? Are we to take all his statements as addressed to saints? Are they all addressed to lost Jews? His meanings are greatly altered depending upon to whom he addressed certain statements.

Some have thought to prove that James wrote to Christians because he referred to them as “brethren.” A study of the use of the term “brethren” by Jewish believers in the New Testament shows that this term is often used of Jews as an ethnic group and is no proof at all that those so addressed were Christians. Consider the following instances of the use of “brethren.” In Acts 2:14 Peter addresses his hearers as “Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem.” Further along in his preaching he refers to these same people as “Ye men of Israel,” (v. 22). In the next verse, 23, he accuses them of murdering the Lord. He says, “ye have taken [Christ], and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” And then in verse 29 Peter addresses his auditors as “Men and brethren.” This last, “men and brethren,” is clearly an ethnic “brethren” and not used in reference to their spiritual condition at all for he addresses the killers of Christ using this term! Furthermore these crucifiers of Christ use the very same terms when addressing Peter and the other apostles, for we read, “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). So then we have both apostles and the unsaved using the term “brethren” in speaking one of the other as Jews.

Again the term “brethren” is used ethnically in Acts chapter three. After the healing of the lame man recorded there, Peter accuses his hearers with these words: “whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate,” (Acts 3:13). In verse 15 he says of them that they, “killed the Prince of life.” And then in verse 15 he calls them “brethren.” Clearly his usage of the term “brethren” does not indicate in any way whatsoever that they were saved! Again we cite the Bible! Stephen, when appearing before the unsaved leaders of Israel – the high priest included – addressed them as “Men, brethren, and fathers,” (Acts 7:2). When Paul and his company arrived in Antioch of Pisidia and visited the synagogue in that place the Jewish synagogue leaders addressed them as “Ye men and brethren,” (Acts 13:15), a purely ethnic appellation. Paul stands and replies to this invitation addressing them as “Men of Israel, and ye that fear God,” (v. 16). In this way Paul differentiates between the ethnic Jews and the Gentiles who were converts (proselytes) to Judaism. He does the same thing in verse 26 using the words, “Men and brethren, children of the stock of Abraham, and whosoever among you feareth God,” and he uses the term “brethren” again in verse 28, saying, “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins.” The argument that “brethren” is always used as an indicator of the salvation of the one addressed is seen to fall apart since it is also used as a merely ethnic term. So the fact that James addressed his readers as “brethren” is no proof that he wrote to them as Christians.

Consider these statements: are we to believe they are addressed to Christians? “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls,” (James 1:21). “From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” (James 4:1), “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God,” (James 4:4). “Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you,” (James 5:4-6). Can anyone believe that James aimed these words at believers? Are they descriptive of the actions of true followers of the Lamb? We think not!

And yet there are a great many statements in James' epistle which do pertain to believers: too many to list here. This combination of statements – some fitted to the lost and some fitted to believers – seems to clearly indicate that James wrote to scattered Jews of the Diaspora - some of whom were believers in Christ and others who were not. But they were all Jews by birth or by conversion to that religion.

Now to the “mystery:” we should remember that at the time of James' writing God had not revealed that both Jews and Gentiles were to be fellow heirs in Christ. Paul is clear on this when he wrote: How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel: Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power,” (Ephesians 3:3-7). Paul used the word “mystery.” A mystery in Scripture is not something difficult to understand, but rather something not previously revealed which was then at that time being made known.

James still viewed the Jewish Nation as God's elect people and indeed they were, but he had no idea that the Gentiles were to be eventually dominant in the churches. Christianity was at that early time still considered to be a part of Judaism which was as Tertullian titled it a “religio licita” - a legal or approved religion within the empire. Those to whom James wrote, whether believers or unbelievers, were clearly either Jews by blood or Jewish proselytes (converts to Judaism). In James' understanding the followers of Christ were Jews!

And so although James mentioned “the elders of the church” (ecclesia or congregation in James 5:14 – a word not strictly limited to a Christian congregation, but is used of a civil one as well) - he also wrote using the term “sunagoge” (soon-ag-o-gay’) or “synagogue” in James 2:2. “Your assembly” in the King James is literally “your synagogue” as the King James translators were careful to show in their marginal note.

Even when we read James' statement: “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures,” (James 1:18) we must question if he was speaking of individual Christians or of the Jewish Nation since he uses the word “begat” which is different from the idea of being born again or regeneration although many have assumed it to be the same idea. It is true that the Nation Israel was brought forth or produced by the “logos” or Word which John says is Christ (see John 1:1-4; 14). Is he saying that the Jews were begotten (produced or brought forth) by “the Father of lights” (James 1:17) and that they are to be regarded as a kind of firstfruits” or are Christians to be regarded as that Jewish offering? Jeremiah definitely identifies Israel as God's firstfruits saying: “Israel was holiness unto the LORD, and the firstfruits of his increase...” (Jeremiah 2:3). Since Jeremiah speaks of Israel as the “firstfruits” should we understand that was James' thinking as well? Or shall we ascribe something new to his thoughts on the meaning of this word? Does he bring in a new thought making the “firstfruits” individual Christians? Or is he speaking of Israel as the “firstfruits” as Jeremiah did?

To understand the Epistle of James we must understand the viewpoint from which James wrote for his was a thoroughly Jewish context. He and all the believers living a that time were ignorant of those things that would later be revealed to Paul. James wrote no error for the Spirit of God superintended his mind and his hand as he wrote, but he did not see the relationship between Judaism and Christianity as later revelations would teach. Nor indeed had Paul turned to the Gentiles at this early time (see Acts 18:16). Each Bible writer wrote of things as they were in his time except those who wrote prophecy and even then what they saw and understood was colored by the amount of knowledge they had at the time.

Surely we will be safe in our understanding and have a better understanding of The Epistle of James if we regard its early age and the Jewishness of its nature and James' personal ignorance of “the abundance of the revelations” (2 Corinthians 12:7) that would later be given to Paul. In this way we can be assured that we understand what James meant and what those to whom he wrote understood him to mean – and that is the message of his letter. His message – and God's message to us - is not what ideas me might read into his writing if we view it as twenty-first century Gentile American Christians and not understand nor take into consideration its context. Let us practice solid exegesis not eisegesis: let us draw the meaning out of the Bible and not read our own ideas into it! Context, context, context! And may God bless us all as we study His Word in context!

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