[Note: all Scripture quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.]
James is one of 7 letters the English Bible groups behind Hebrews. Theologians refer to them as the General Letters because they are not addressed to a specific church as Paul’s letters were. You may have heard them referred to as the Catholic Letters. That term was used by the church historian Eusebius in his work Ecclesiastical History. “Catholic” meant “universal”.
Despite this history, I note that the letter addresses specific problems. It stands to reason that those problems existed in specific churches and that James wrote to them to correct those problems.
It is thought that James letter was written very early and may even be the first New Testament letter.
The writer of the letter identified himself as James. It is generally accepted that the writer is James the brother of Jesus. The New Testament testifies that Jesus had a brother named James. Matthew 13:53-55. The Greek word for “brother” here is “adelphos” which literally means “from the same womb”. In Galatians 1:19, Paul said he went to Jerusalem and visited James “the Lord’s brother”.
We know that James and his brothers did not believe in Jesus as the Son of God initially. (John 7:5) He may not have come to believe in Jesus until the resurrection. Paul wrote that Jesus appeared to James. (1 Corinthians 15:7) James and all of his brothers were in the room with the Twelve in Acts 1:14.
James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Paul called him one of the pillars of the church. (Galatians 2:9) He also sent men to Antioch to check on the church. (Galatians 2:12) In Acts 12:17, Peter, being released from prison by an angel, told the believers to tell James and the brothers. In Acts 15, we also see that James had the last word in the Jerusalem council regarding the Gentiles. He commanded them to listen to him. (Acts 15:13) He said “my judgment is” and proceeded to lay down a ruling regarding the Gentiles.
I think James described himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” because the recipients of the letter already knew he was the Lord’s brother and he wanted to emphasize not his physical relationship to the Lord, but rather his spiritual relationship. He lived to serve the Lord.
The recipients of the letter were the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion”. The 12 tribes was a way of referring to Israel. But we know James was writing to believers. In 2:1 he said “as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory”. He may have meant believing Jews who lived outside of Palestine. For example, Acts 2:9-11 shows us that Jews from many countries, who evidently did not speak Greek, attended Pentecost and witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Twelve. Three Thousand people believed and were baptized. Then they likely all went back to their own countries and met in worship together.
However, he may have just referred to all believers, regardless of race, outside and used the term to identify the church as the New Israel. The church is dispersed because it is not in heaven or the New Earth and is often persecuted and oppressed. Jews in the intertestamental period used this terminology to refer to the true people of God in the last days and I prefer this interpretation. Jesus seems to have indicated this truth also. He chose 12 apostles, suggesting he was creating an eschatological Israel. In Matthew 19:28, he told them that in the new earth they would sit on 12 thrones and judge the 12 tribes of Israel. He is saying that Christians are the true people of God in the last days.
Peter used a similar term in 1 Peter 1:1, addressing his letter to the “elect exiles of the dispersion”, again using this metaphor to describe the church as away from its real home in heaven. He goes on to describe the church in the same terms God described Israel (2:9) and goes on to say they are sojourners and exiles. This is another way of saying the same thing, that this earth in this age is not our home.
The country singer Jim Reeves wrote a song about this:
"This World Is Not My Home"
This world is not my home
I'm just a-passing through
My treasures are laid up
Somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me
From heaven's open door
And I can't feel at home
In this world anymore.
Testing of Faith
This passages tells us how to react to trials and tests. It also tells us the purpose of them.
James refers to trials of various kinds. The word for trial here includes tests of faith, whether by persecution or just difficult times. It might mean having your house burned down by Muslims because your are a Christian, or finding out you have cancer, or losing your job.
We we encounter trials of various kinds, we are to count it all joy. The NIV uses “consider”. We usually react to trials with frustration, anger, anxiety or fear. So, this is an audacious statement. Remember Job’s wife told him to curse God and die. (Job 2:9)
This does not mean that trials are fun. If they were fun, they would not be trials. That is why he says for us to count it joy or consider it joy. It is not our natural reaction. So, we must count it as joy. In fact, we must count it as all joy, with nothing else mixed in.
The reason we count them as all joy is the purpose of trials. Verse 3 tells us the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. You are steadfast when you do not waver in your faith, when you endure, when you are firm. Steadfastness and endurance are traits of a mature believer. A mature believer is one who is much like Christ. God works in us for our sanctification, making us more and more like Christ.
Did Jesus have joy in trials? Hebrews 12:2 tell us to look to Jesus who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame. Jesus did not have this trial to sanctify himself, but to save us. But the writer of Hebrews used it as an example for us so that we will endure, not grow weary or fainthearted. (Hebrews 12:3) In other words, so that we will be steadfast.
Steadfastness is not the end result, however. Steadfastness has an effect on us, making us perfect and complete. (4) James said to let it have its full effect on us. We grow in faith. We grow in holiness.
Some of you have faced great trials. You have been seriously ill. You have lost a job. You have been divorced. You have lost friends. You have been persecuted for your faith. All of us will face trials at some point. You can get angry or panic. Or you can count it as joy, trusting God to do his work on you, and wait for it to be over. Once you have trusted God through a trial, you have even greater faith. You become steadfast. You become holy. You become complete.
In addition to Jesus himself, there are other examples in the Bible. As I mentioned, Job faced great trials, but honored the Lord. When Peter and John were arrested for preaching, thy rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus. (Acts 5:41) Paul went to prison but wrote that he rejoiced because he believed that Christ would be honored in his body, whether Paul lived or died. (Philippians 1:18)
You may be thinking, how can I get to be like that. James gives us the answer. In verse 5, he said if we lack wisdom we can ask God for it. We quote this out of context all the time. But he is speaking in the framework of trials. If we lack wisdom on how to handle this trial, God will give it generously and without reproach.
Sometimes we face a trial and know exactly what to do. When I faced political turmoil in my job a few years ago, I knew God wanted me to trust him to fix it and avoid taking revenge. I knew this from study of the Bible. But when I faced a trial due to a bad business parter, I did not know what to do and prayed for God to show me. He did and I got through it and learned to trust and to ask.
James says God gives generously. He will give you the wisdom you need to handle the trial. He will not withhold from you. He also does this without reproach. Have you ever asked somebody a question, and gotten the answer, but made to feel stupid? God does not do that. He literally gives wisdom single-mindedly.
And in the same way, we must ask for wisdom without doubting. You cannot really stand firm and doubt at the same time. So, you cannot ask God for wisdom on how to be steadfast if you doubt that God can or will give it. You are unstable, saying one thing and believing another.
I think many folks approach a test this way. They ask God to help, but actually doubt that he can help. Then they face the trial in doubt and fear and anger and do not receive any spiritual growth from it. Sometimes God is gracious and still handles the trial or makes it come out all right, but the believer does not receive the full benefit of the trial. So his or her testimony is “I was not sure God would help me and I really was terrified but he did and now I am relieved”. But it could have been, I asked God for wisdom and he gave it to me. I endured the trial and praise God for the ability to face it and grow from it.
Consider it all joy when you face a trial. Let God make you steadfast through it. Let steadfastness make you holy and complete in Christ.