First, let me offer a disclaimer. There is little doubt I’ll not cover all the ins and outs of this letter regarding questions, concerns, and even controversies. Therefore it’s important for you to do some individual study in order to catch the full scope of the background and import of James’ message.
Even though some in history have referred to James as an “epistle of straw” (Martin Luther), if we look closely, it’s clear there are weighty matters being discussed in this short epistle. On a first read, the book seems disjointed and without a clear theme. The staccato shift from one topic to another seems awkward. To compound that, there’s no real Christology or major theology—or so it seems. However, if we read the text carefully and try to hear the text from the author’s standpoint, it is evident there is an objective. There is a solid theology that’s being presented. The key will be understanding how to bridge what James is saying to his listeners to fit how we live life in the twenty-first century. A hard but necessary task whenever we do Bible study.
Before we move in that direction let’s first agree there is little reason not to believe the epistle’s author is James, the brother of Jesus. Even though there are several James listed in the NT, there would only be three that have possibilities for authoring this letter: James, the brother of John—this is unlikely since he’s killed rather early in the church’s development; James the younger, but we know little about him and he’s never referred to as an apostle. That leaves us with the most likely candidate James, the brother of Jesus, who Jesus appeared to and whom Paul refers to and met with as a leader in the early church in Jerusalem.
The ironic thing about James, the brother of Jesus, having this role of apostle and author is that early in Jesus’s ministry presumably he, along with the rest of the family, thought Jesus to be a bit short of full deck. And whether or not Jesus sets the record straight with the rest of the family he certainly tilts the scale in his favor with James by appearing to him after the resurrection.
If we settle on authorship, it then becomes our duty to see how James identifies himself. He calls himself “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Notice he doesn’t play the “brother” card. He plays the “servant/slave” card. He doesn’t even identify himself as an apostle. He claims no privilege other than being in the service of the King. Hence the term “servant” or doulos in Greek.
The term “slave or servant” is not one that sets well with many contemporary Christians because we bounce the term up against what we identify in our Western culture as slaves or servants. It’s primarily a racially charged term. That was not the case in the first century. If anything it was more ethnic and there were several different kinds of “slaves”: those who toiled in the mines under great hardship, those that were “slaves” to the emperor often enjoying much privilege, and those who were household slaves either by subscription, by choice or by birth. We might assume, as dangerous as that is, that James is referring to household slaves when he uses the term doulos. Or….
It could be that James is referring to the “calling” of a servant of God. “Servant” is a term used of Moses, David, Daniel and even the people of Israel. It reflected a commitment to and being in the service of YHWH. If we go this route, the intent would be that James is not assuming a position of privilege but a position of service to God. He surrenders the position of authority, as an Apostle, and assumes the position of a servant to the father of lights.
This is where we can start to build that bridge from then to the now. Each of us, in Christ, are servants of God. Regardless of how our culture likes and often seeks a position of privilege, we have no privilege to claim except that of the redeemed. Even though some may have a position of “honor” or calling that position fades in light of a call to service. We are all pilgrims on the pathway of discipleship. To assume otherwise is a grave mistake and a roadblock to effectively communicating the message of the Gospel.
When we understand this “position” in Christ, we begin to understand how the heart of one like James begins to take direct aim at the issues which negatively affect any community of believers.
Next up–who are those that find themselves the object of this teaching?