THE EPISTLE OF
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The Hebrew-Christian Epistles. The Hebrew-Christian epistles are written to Jews who had believed the gospel, including those who had made a profession. These epistles - Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter - are given to help the Jewish believers in their special circumstances, dealing with the challenges they would have because of their background.
- James was written to “the twelve tribes”, written the earliest (circa A.D. 45). James does not call the Jewish believers to leave the Jewish system, as in Hebrews. Instead it was written to people just like those at the time of our Lord’s ministry, who knew the basic truths of Christianity, but at the same time were keeping the law and the ordinances (see Acts 21:18-24). The danger was that Christianity would become a dead religion to them. There were a mixture of those of faith and those without faith, but James encourages the real believers to let their faith be manifested by their works! In other words, without calling the faithful to leave Judaism, James calls the believers to distinguish themselves by living out their faith!
- Hebrews was written much later (circa A.D. 63) to Jewish people who had made a profession of Christianity. The epistle is written generally to real believers, yet recognizing that there were some mixed among them who were not real, and would later apostatize; "But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak." (Hebrews 6:9). Hebrews sets forth the superiority of Christ and Christianity to all that the Jews had under the law. It served as a clear and persuasive call to the Hebrew-Christians to totally separate from Judaism, which the writer calls "the camp"!
- Peter wrote still later from Rome during the the Neronian Persecution (A.D. 65-67). He wrote two epistles to Jewish believers who had been scattered from Israel; "the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia" (1 Peter 1:1). Peter wrote to strengthen and encourage these believers who had already made the step of leaving Judaism, and were feeling the loss of all the things they held dear (Luke 22:32). Peter in his own way takes up the better place the Hebrew Christians now had, presenting to them the "better promises", etc.
The Hebrew-Christian epistles therefore have this progression: James (A.D. 45) calls the Jewish believers to distinguish themselves by living out their faith, Hebrews (A.D. 63) calls them to leave Judaism completely, and Peter (A.D. 65-67) encourages them in their pathway, they what they have in Christ is indeed far better! A common theme through all of these epistles is the reality of faith lived out in the believer's life. None of these epistles are written to the church as such, nor are they based on the doctrine of the Church in her union with Christ. The Church is hardly mentioned all! The "church of the firstborn" in Hebrews pictures the saints as individuals in connection with Christ, rather than as His body. They were not ready for the “strong meat” (Heb. 5:12-14). Hebrews is based on the doctrine of the Person and Work of Christ, presenting Jesus to the Jewish remnant as their Messiah, no longer on earth but now glorified in heaven. Hebrews does not even go as far as to unfold the believer's relationship with God as Father.
The Author. There are three prominent brethren in the early church called James. First, there was James the son of Zebedee and brother of John, called James the Great. He was “killed with the sword” by Herod in A.D. 44 (Acts 12). Second, there was James the son of Alphaeus, called James the Less (Mark 15:40). We know very little definitive about this James. Third, there was James the brother of Our Lord, called James the Just. Paul had a meeting with this James after his conversion (Gal. 1:18-19). In the latter half of the book of Acts a certain “James” rises to prominence in church at Jerusalem, and is found in close association with Peter and and John as the “pillars” of the assembly (Gal. 2:9). This James’ ministry lines up very closely with that of the epistle of James. The question is, which James was he? Even the most sound expositors do not agree on which James. For example, William Kelly was convinced that the author was James the Less, the son of Alpheus.1 The Concise Bible Dictionary follows likewise; “The epistle was doubtless written by James the son of Alphaeus; from whence it is not known, and its date is only conjectural, varying from A.D. 45 to 60.” On the other hand, J.N. Darby believed it was James the Lord’s brother who rose to prominence in the book of Acts and wrote the epistle that bears his name,2 and F.B. Hole agreed with him.3 Perhaps is does not matter. If we assume it was James the Lord’s brother, something interesting should be noted. Initially, along with the other siblings – Joses, and Simon, and Judas (Matt. 13:55) – James didn’t believe on the Lord Jesus (John 7:5). He must have been converted around the time of the cross, for we find in 1 Cor. 15:7 that the Lord had a personal interview with James before His ascension. It is alluded – although the construction of the passages can be disputed – in Galatians 1 and 1 Corinthians 15 that James was called an apostle (although not one of the twelve). He was found “continuing” with the apostles and brethren before the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:14). Very quickly he rose to prominence (Gal. 1:18-19; Acts 15:13; Acts 21:18). James was used remarkably in Acts 15, and his famous line “Men and brethren, hearken unto me” has been suggested as a good title for his epistle. He was very influential among the believing Jews. From his history in Acts and Galatians, it would seem that James never grew into the full knowledge of the liberty of Jewish believers. He still thought that Jewish believers needed to keep the law, and he had a Judaizing influence on Paul in Acts 21, and Peter in Galatians 2.4 But James’ shortcoming was a matter of growth, and God was patient with the Jewish saints in those early days. Further, the Spirit of God selected what James would write, and there was no error in what he wrote! He was stoned by the Jews in A.D. 62.
Background and Overview of the Epistle. The epistle of James is addressed to the twelve tribes of Israel dispersed throughout the Gentile world, including unbelievers (James 4:9; 5:1-6) but also “brethren” among them; i.e. believers with “the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ” (James 2:1). Many Jews had been saved through the preaching of the apostles, and the disciples had been scattered from Jerusalem during the great persecution in the days of Claudius (Acts 8:1). Now there were thousands of Jews professing faith in Christ all over the middle-east, north Africa, and spreading into Europe. It is important to see that this was a transitional time for these converts. At the time James wrote, Paul had not even embarked on his first missionary journey, spreading the gospel to the Gentiles and unfolding the truth of the mystery. Many Jews believed that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God, and that He died and rose again, but they were still keeping the law. In the words of James to Paul, “Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law” (Acts 21:20). James felt that it was right for the Jews to keep the law, but (rightly) would not insist on the Gentiles doing so (Acts 15:19-20). He didn’t seem to fully grasp the liberty that all Christians were brought into through Christ, including that Jewish believers were free from obligation to the law. However, James saw that the believer in Christ has a new motive, which is a total contrast to the law of commandments. The believer has a new life that desires to please God, and so doing the will of God is a “perfect law of liberty” to the believer (James 1:25). His ministry addressed a great need among the Jewish believers, and the Spirit of God raised him up to write the epistle at a very early date (A.D. 45, the earliest inspired epistle). For the believers, their new faith was quite different from Judaism in that it consisted of laying hold of things that were unseen (2 Cor. 5:7). Because of this, there was a danger that over time Christianity among the Jewish converts would become a thing of profession only, without reality. An intellectual reception of the gospel is worthless if there is no reality. James writes to those of Israel who had professed Christianity, and there was a mixture among them of real and false, to exhort them to let their faith be real. It is all about living out faith so that others may see it. “Faith without works”, says James, “is dead”. The believer must prove the reality of his faith by works (Jam. 2:18). What good is hearing the Word of God if you are not going to do what it says? (Jam. 1:22). James takes up the practical application of Christianity in living reality; i.e. “true religion”. If they heeded James’ instructions, those of faith would distinguish themselves from those were merely professing without reality. There was a great need for the epistle of James in the first century, and there is a need for it today. Someone has referred to James as “the Proverbs of the New Testament” because it is full of practical instruction, from end to end. May our souls be blessed and edified in the reading and study of the epistle of James!
- It may be well to add that, whatever the doubts of Alford, Neander and others, the writer was no other than James “the little,” son of Alphaeus or Clopas (really the same Aramaic name rendered into Greek somewhat differently): the same man who took the lead after the martyrdom of the son of Zebedee, as is plain in the Acts (Acts 12:17; Acts 15:13; Acts 21:18). Compare 1 Cor. 15:7, and Gal. 2:9, 12. His words and ways elsewhere are strikingly in agreement with his letter. – Kelly, Exposition of James.
- Let us trace the history of James as we find it in the Acts. But first we get him specially mentioned in Galatians 1:19, as having been seen by Paul, who, at that time, with the exception of Peter, had not seen the other apostles. Then we find him in Acts 15, presiding if we can so say, in the assembly of the apostles and elders, for deciding whether the Gentiles ought to be subjected to the law of Moses. – Darby, Brief Exposition of the Epistle of James.
- The James who wrote it was not the brother of John. He was slain by Herod in very early years, as recorded in Acts 12:2. The author of the Epistle was the James spoken of in Acts 15:13, and Acts 21; 18. Paul calls him, “James, the Lord’s brother,” in Galatians 1:19, and he acknowledges him as one of the “pillars” of the Church in Jerusalem in Galatians 2:9. – F.B. Hole. The Epistle of James.
- James was evidently at the head of the assembly at Jerusalem, and expressed in his own person the strength of that principle of Judaism, which still reigned in the church at Jerusalem, God bearing with it in His patience. They believed in Jesus, they broke bread at home, but they were all zealous for the law. They offered sacrifices in the temple, and even persuaded Paul to do the same (Acts 21), and they were in no respect separated from the nation. All this is forbidden in the Epistle to the Hebrews, but it was practised up to the last days of Judaism. – J.N. Darby, Brief Exposition of the Epistle of James.