The theme or central thought of this Letter is to be found in James 1:26, 27. Here the “holy man of God, James, as moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:21) draws a basic distinction. He writes: “If any man among you seem to be religious . . .”; literally, if any man among you thinks or imagines himself to be religious; “and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” What James is saying in these verses is that the most fundamental distinction is not first of all between “hearing and doing the Word,” James 1:22 ff., nor between “saying and doing,” James 2:14-26; but between “thinking and being,” that is: what we imagine ourselves to be as over against what we actually ought to be. James’ point is that life, all of life, is religious. And one’s life is either false religion or it’s true religion. In his heart man either loves the one true God, and his neighbor as himself; or he hates God and the neighbor. His life gives expression to his heart commitment. There are three characteristics of true religion, “pure and undefiled,” in these verses. One who is truly religious bridles his tongue. It’s that little member, the tongue, by which one expresses the boasting of his heart of pride (James 3:5). Controlling the tongue is the key to the humility of obedience to the perfect Law of Liberty (James 1:25). The second characteristic of true religion is “to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction.” This is the highest expression of obedience to the second table of the law, “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The third characteristic of pure and undefiled religion is: “and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” This is to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, mind, soul, and strength, having no other gods before Him.
The entire Epistle is built upon that foundation and is a development of that theme: “pure and undefiled religion.” James 2 has to do with the “visiting of the fatherless and widows,” James 3 with bridling the tongue, and James 4 and James 5 with keeping ourselves unspotted from the world.
Noting some of the outstanding characteristics of the Epistle in general we find a marked similarity to the teaching of Jesus, especially His Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matt. 5-7. These similarities we will note in more detail as we encounter them in our verse-by-verse exposition.
The Letter is eminently practical. This is not to say, as one New Testament scholar put it: “There is a paucity of doctrine” in James. It is true we do not find the logical and detailed development of the great themes of predestination, the Covenant of Grace, justification, sanctification, etc. which we find in the other Epistles, notably Paul’s There is, however, plenty of doctrine, or at least doctrinal presupposition pervading these chapters. John Calvin is careful to say in his introductory remarks to his commentary on James: “It seems that he is more sparing in proclaiming the grace of Christ than it behooves an Apostle to be: . . ” Then Calvin goes on to explain that James has his own unique place in the Canon of the Scriptures. James is concerned with the practical working out of the doctrines of God in the everyday life of the child of God. This means that we shall have to take care in our exposition not to tear James loose from the context of the entire New Testament. Closely related to the second characteristic of the book, is the fact that James is authoritative in tone. Almost every other verse contains an imperative. Often these are put in the sharpest of terms. Yet, at the same time, these cutting, almost shocking admonitions are spoken out of the tenderness of the love of God. In the very next breath James will say: “My brethren.” The fact is, however, that James “pulls no punches,” he strikes hard and right to the point.
Bearing these thoughts in mind we turn to verse one: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.” It strikes one that James offers no further identification of himself. No doubt this is because he was rather prominent in the New Testament Church, so that the mere mention of his name sufficed to introduce him to his readers. The Bible mentions four different men by this name. There are the two apostles: James the Son of Zebedee (Matt. 4:21), James the son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3). Neither of these is likely to be the author simply because there is no claim anywhere in this letter on the part of its author to being an apostle. Neither of these is very prominent in the New. Testament. And, finally, the fact that James of the son of Zebedee was beheaded by Herod no later than A.D. 44 precludes the possibility of his being the author. Scripture speaks of James the father of Judas the Apostle (not Iscariot) in Luke 6:16, but this is all we ever read of him.
This evidence points to James the half-brother of Jesus cited in Matt. 13:55. This brother of the Lord is certainly well-known in the early church. We find him waiting for the outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 1:14), a leader in Jerusalem (Acts 12), presiding at the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15), mentioned by the Apostle Paul as among the “pillars of the church” (Gal. 2:9). There is a similarity of the language of the Epistle and that of James in, his speech recorded in Acts 15. The address, “greeting” (James 1:1 — Acts 15:23) found in both is used by no other New Testament writer; the term “visit” (James 1:27— Acts 15:14) is the same in both; both passages reveal a similar use of the term indicating the turning of sinners to God (James 5:19, 20 — Acts 15:19); and the use of the name of the Lord is similar in both (James 2:7 — Acts 15:17). While all this may not be conclusive, it certainly leads us to believe that James, the half-brother of the Savior, is the human instrument used by the Spirit to write this part of the Scriptures.
What is of much greater significance is his identity as a “servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” This does not mean that James is a servant of God and also a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. Rather the idea is that James is a servant of God in and through the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, the Mediator. “Through Him I have been made a servant of God,” is what James is saying. He is Jesus, Jehovah salvation. The Son of God to Whose image we have been conformed by sovereign, gracious, eternal election. He is Jesus Who reveals in all His Word and work Jehovah as the God of our salvation. He is the Christ, God’s anointed, our Prophet, Priest, and King. And having paid the price for our sins, having satisfied the justice of God He is raised from the dead, set down at the right hand of God, crowned with glory and honor, given all authority on heaven and earth, the Lord of lords.
This is really a confession of James, a personal testimony to the church. That’s remarkable, too: for we know from the gospel records (John 7:6ff) that at first James did not believe in Christ. Only later was he brought to conversion, perhaps by the personal appearance of the risen Christ to him (I Cor. 15:7). Now, he confesses to be a servant of God through the Lord Jesus Christ.
The word “servant” in the King James has a passive force. It comes from a root verb which means to bind or capture. Hence, the word is better translated “bond-servant,” or “slave.” James was a slave of God in a very special sense as a writer of Holy Scripture. This is undoubtedly what he is saying to the twelve tribes scattered abroad. He is reminding them that what he writes is not his own word but the very Word of God, God breathed! As a slave of God He means to emphasize exactly this, that his will is totally subject to the will of God Who is using him to reveal His good and perfect will to the church. The truth of infallible inspiration does not depend on a few isolated texts or passages in the Bible but runs as a current throughout the Scriptures. Think in this connection of the “thus saith the Lord’s” or “the word of the Lord came unto me saying . . .” of the Old Testament.
In a broader sense all God’s children are His slaves through the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a Word here we ought not miss. A slave in Bible times was completely at the mercy of his Master. He had no property, no rights or privileges of any kind, not even his children were considered his. He was utterly bound to his Master. So it is with the redeemed in Christ. They are in total subjection to God. They confess with the Heidelberg Catechism, “I am not my own, but belong in life and in death to my faithful Saviour.” Everything they have and everything they are belongs to the Lord. They own nothing: homes, automobiles, jobs, farms, husbands, wives, children, money—it’s all the Lord’s! Their wills must be subject to the Lord’s will. And with everything they have and are they are obligated to love the Lord their God. This is what pure and undefiled religion is all about!
And there is the freedom of the child of God. The ungodly consumed by the lusts of sin, rejoicing in iniquity, are in most horrible bondage. They are driven by their lord and master sin into the pit of hell under the righteous judgment of God (cf. Romans 1). God is not mocked. The wages of sin is death, and those wages are paid. But the children of God are free: free to love the Lord, to enjoy the peace of forgiveness, the joy of salvation, and the hope of everlasting life. They are really free, these slaves of God, as paradoxical as that may sound.
That is, too, the comfort of the child of God. His Master is His heavenly Father, the Almighty Creator-Sustainer of the whole universe. And his heavenly Father clothes the grass of the field, adorns the lilies with a glory greater than Solomon’s, and feeds the little sparrows. He will surely care for His slaves who are of more value than many sparrows (Matt. 6).
Our comments on the “twelve tribes scattered abroad” and the greeting will have to wait until the next issue.