Lecture 23: James | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 23: James

Course: New Testament Survey, Acts to Revelation

Lecture 23: James

This is the 23nd lecture in the online series of lectures on New Testament Survey by Dr Thomas Schreiner. Recommended Reading includes: Article on Divorce and Remarriage – Craig Blomberg, Trinity Journal, 1990; The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross by Leon Morris; Are there Two Will in God by John Piper; Two views on Women in Ministry by James Beck and Craig Blomberg; Word Bible Commentary: Pastoral Epistles, Volume 46, by William D. Mounce and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Biblical Womanhood, by Wayne Gudem and John Piper (article by Vern Poythress entitled, ‘The Church as a Family’)

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We will consider the defining questions about the content and origin of the epistle of James.

Trace Assignment Hebrews 7:20-28

‘And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever. This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.’

You can keep this as one proposition; an idea and explanation. There was an oath made saying that he was a priest forever, but the others became a priest without an oath. This is from Psalm 110. This oath establishes Jesus as a guarantor of a better covenant than the Old Covenant. Verse 22 we see that it relates to verse 20; both are propositions. So the main point and in fact the main theme here is that Jesus has become a guarantee of a better covenant. This is a comparative construction. The remaining part of the paragraph represents a defense of this idea. Why were there so many priests in the past? There were lots of priests as they continued to die unlike Jesus who holds his priesthood permanently due to the fact that Jesus will live forever to make intercession for us. So on one hand there was lots of priests due to their deaths, yet Jesus becomes a permanent priest because he continues forever due to his resurrection. He will be always alive to make intercession and prayer for them. This was on the basis of their blood. We have a better covenant because we have a permanent priest and so he is able to save us forever. Thus, why would you have to go back to the Levitical sacrifices? This is the argument. The last point in the argument describes Jesus as the permanent high priest. He was holy, innocent, unstrained, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens. Jesus doesn’t need to offer daily sacrifices for his own sins like those high priests. This was done once and for all on the cross as he became the final sacrifice, not for his sins as Jesus was sinless but for those he died for. Those who were high priests were weak and imperfect but Jesus was made perfect forever because he was sinless. So in preaching about this passage; the main point to preach on is that Jesus is the guarantee of a better covenant.

I. Why has James been held in suspicion by some during the history of the church?

One reason is that people didn’t know who wrote it. The letter wasn’t circulated much in the early church. I date it as written as early as 45 AD. Interestingly, Luther actually said that it was an epistle of straw, concluding that James disagreed with Paul on justification. The author was probably James, the brother of Jesus. The book was probably written to Jewish Christians in Palestine. I believe that Luther overemphasized the difference from that of Paul’s theology; even misread it. Luther, unlike Calvin was more of a preacher and tended to exaggerate, saying things that he should not have said. Even the things he said about the Jews were quite unfortunate. Yet there were many good things that Luther did, of course. He never excluded James from the Canon though. He simply saw it as less important and perhaps there is something to this. Not every book is of equal importance.

II. What are the responses to the above objections?

James doesn’t really say anything about the Cross. It is inspired of course but it is not one of the chief books. Which James wrote this letter? He is not unknown. James the Son of Zebedee, the brother of John, died too early to be the one to write this book. And nobody thinks that it was him who wrote this book. The natural choice is James, the brother of Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary, who was perhaps the next oldest child, apart from Jesus. This is the traditional view of the church which should be respected.

III. Which James wrote this letter?

The book fits with James authority. Remember in Acts with the Jerusalem Council, James had the last word in the council. He is called one of the pillars of the church in Galatians 2. It was also in Acts 21, when Paul returns to Jerusalem, it was James who instructs him on what to do. Note that our faith doesn’t necessarily depend of whether or not it was James, the son of Joseph and Mary.

IV. What reason are there for preferring James the brother of Jesus as the author?

It was also Josephus who records that James was stoned to death in AD 62. So this James was quite prominent receiving mention in the writings of Josephus. It also fits with the Jewish character of the letter and it is full of the allusions of the teachings of Jesus. He never quotes those teachings but alludes to it over and over. The meetings place in the book is the Synagogue which again fits with the Jewish character of the book. He emphasizes that God is one, standard Jewish teaching; the Shama (Hear, O Israel!).

V. To whom was the letter written and what was the situation of the readers?

The content of the letter suggests that the readers are Jews. At the beginning of the letter; it is addressed to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion; thus more evidence that it is addressed to Jewish Christians. We also need to remember that James mainly ministered to the Jews. He didn’t seem to go out on missions to other places. In addition, there is a reference to renting out farms and the laborers who were defrauded. The readers were poor and oppressed by the wealthy.

VI. Circumstances

This is a major theme which is hard for us to relate to for those from the wealthier countries. It is clear that the readers are experiencing difficulties and trials in their lives. The church is tempted to court friendship with the world, making things a little easier. Life is stressful. James also reminds them to think of the poor among them.

VII. When was the letter written?

Like me, Douglas Moo dates the letter as being very early. But there are many other views as to the time it was written. Some even date it around 60 AD right before his death. Others think that it was edited by a later disciple and thus dated even later in the 70s or 80s. There are others who think that it is pseudonymous and date it as late as 140 AD. I would not date it that late.

VIII. What is the nature of the letter of James?

The popular view as to the nature of the letter says that it is a collection of sayings like proverbs. Walter Wessel from Bethel Seminary says the Book of James as containing Synagogue homilies or sermons that were given in the Synagogue. Peter David’s view from his commentary also says that there is synagogue homilies but with a careful structure also. I think that this is correct; there is a careful structure in the book, thus not as disconnected as some people think. Moo leans toward the view that it is more disconnected.

IX. Content

A. Suffering/Testing: 1:2-11; 1:12-18 (doubled introduction); 5:7; The Goodness of God/wisdom in trials.

He starts the letter out with these famous words, ‘count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.’ We have already seen this in Romans. These trials are to make us a stronger person. God in his wisdom allows these trials in our life for our good, holiness and our strength. It is not because he doesn’t love us. The full effect of this steadfastness is being perfect and thus looking toward the end of time when God has finished his work in us. There will not be perfection until the last day, but ultimately God is using this to make us like himself. Verse 5 is closely related to verse 4. Life is difficult and so he addressed those who lack wisdom in their trials. I think perhaps that those in the community who are suffering and facing trials are wondering whether or not God is good. James tells them that God gives to all generously and without reproach. Reproach means when a person gives you something but sort of hangs on reminding you of their gift. They sort of hold it against you in some way and James is saying that God isn’t like that. In asking God for help, there must faith in the fact that God is good. If we don’t trust God, we will not have access to his blessings. If we have doubt we become double-minded and thus unstable in our ways.

Now verse 12 seems to be a doubled introduction. It seems to continue from verse 2. It starts out with the same theme, blessed is the person who remains steadfast under trial. James says that you are blessed when you undergo trials and upon standing the test, you will receive the crown of life which God has promised for those who love him. I understand that the crown of life is the crown which is eternal life. It is not a special crown for those who endure trials; it is the crown that all believers receive. Thus, all genuine Christians will receive this crown of life. But James makes it clear that God doesn’t tempt those who belong to him. God doesn’t make our lives miserable; he doesn’t create situations whereby it is difficult to live for him. It is not God’s fought for us sinning. So God cannot be tempted with evil and God doesn’t tempt anyone. God is not inclined to evil in any respect. (Of course Jesus was tempted without sinning.) God does bring trials into our lives or at least permitted by him or whatever word you want to use. But God’s motivation is not to tempt us to sin but for us to be stronger. We see this in the life of Job and what happened to Job. Yet, God is sovereign in what comes into our lives. So where does temptation come from? It comes from ourselves, from our own desires within us not from without and that desire reaches a certain point where it conceives. So it ultimately yields an action of sin and thus once completed that sin brings forth death. So James is telling them not to blame God for the sins they have committed; it is your fault.

Then in verse 16, James returns to the goodness of God. ‘Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.’ It is from above and every good gift is from him, from God himself. So James is trying to instruct the community on the goodness of God. And we forget ourselves of what God has given to us; we stop thinking about the good things God has given us. Being the Father of lights, we see the heavens above us and it reminds us of the greatness of God. These things tell us that God is good and every good gift comes from him. God is unalterably good with no variation or shadow. Some people are good one day but not the next. Parents can be that way, wives can be that way, children can be that way along with husbands and friends, but God is good every day. James is also saying that we can trust someone if we believe that they are good. The supreme example of God’s goodness is our new life as Christians. Thus of his own will he brought us forth to a new life in him. He gave us a new birth through the word of truth.

B. A Practical Ethic

James is a very practical book emphasizing that we are to do the Word. We are not to be hearers only but also doers. James says that we need to put into practice what we hold, otherwise it is very ineffectual. The book of James is popular because it is so practical about everyday life. If hearing is not accompanied with doing, there will ultimately be no profit, nothing gained from the Word. James is concerned with those hurting in the community. James also talks about not being partial to the rich not preferring some people over others. This is so contrary to how we place other people above others. We are so spring-loaded to show honor to those with a reputation. We are to treat everyone as a person created in God’s image. We are not to favor certain people over others; this is a trap where we put certain people above others. Interestingly, James writes, ‘has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?’ This is divine election here and God also grants us the gift of faith. He grants faith to people. James tells us to show everyone mercy.

In verse 8, James says that all sin matters to God. We are to love out neighbors as ourselves and not show partiality which is sin and thus we become transgressors of the law. All sin is sin and according to the Bible, there is no lessor or greater sins; they are all the same. (Yet in practice or rather in society, we seem to distinguish between different sins; murder, rape, child molesting, etc.) James is saying that our mercy that is shown to the poor will triumph over our judgement on the last day. Our mercy will avert our judgement on the last day. In other words, how we treat people is one indication of whether we are Christians or not. If we don’t show mercy, no mercy will be shown to us and this is exactly what Jesus taught. Those who are truly Christian will show mercy on others and therefore will receive mercy on the last day. Then James talks about how our tongues should be under control. This passage reminds us of the Book of Proverbs and the need to have our tongues under control. We need to be infused by love; we need to have our hearts animated and guided and strengthened by love. James uses illustrations of horses with a bit in their mouths and boats being guided by rudders. James is saying that we need God’s Spirit to help us to do this and we need to have a new life. We need a new tree to produce good fruit and if there isn’t any good fruit, something is wrong with the tree. James isn’t speaking of perfection here. And this reminds us of Proverbs and in addition, to what Paul says in Ephesians. We need to say edifying and strengthening words to those around us, building them up in faith.

James 3:13;

‘who is wise and understanding among you?’ The Biblical answer is that, the wise and understanding person is the one who lives a Godly life. ‘Let him show his life in the meekness of wisdom.’ Who then is wise? Not the person who can win theological arguments but the person in the way they live for God. There can be no jealousy or selfish ambition in our hearts. We are not to boast and be false to the truth. This is earthly wisdom, not godly wisdom; it is demonic. The wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. This is similar to the fruits of the Spirit. The Biblical definition of wisdom is a changed life. In moving into chapter 4, we see that it is very similar. What causes wars, it is people’s desires. We desire but we don’t have it and so then we kill to get it. This is how bad we can belong if we want something. Murder leads to murder. If we get angry, the root of it is some desire that we want to obtain. In not obtaining that desire, we get mad. We ask and don’t receive because we ask wrongly to spend it on our passions. James calls us an adulterous people because friendship with the world is enmity with God? If we get mad, we are committing a sin of idolatry because that desire has become our God. That is it for today; see you next time.
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