How the Book of James fits together

Some people, reading the letter of James, have thought that it collects miscellaneous exhortations that do not fit together very well. When one examines it carefully, however, it becomes clear that it does fit together around some common themes. Some scholars argue that others helped James arrange his teachings, especially when they were circulated for an audience outside Judea. This would not be surprising, since speakers commonly depended on scribes to put their teaching into writing. Scholars also debate whether it is a letter essay or simply an essay with a letter greeting (for convenience we will use “letter”). The important point here is that his teachings fit together.

In another post (—-james-47-and-other-verses/), I ask how James wants us to resist the devil (4:7). There I suggest that in context he especially is emphasizing resisting the world’s values, such as envy and conflict. This is a valid general principle, but were there any specific conflicts that James was especially concerned about among his readers? Most likely, there were.

In the introduction to the work James introduces several themes which recur through the rest of the letter. By tracing these themes, we get a simple outline of the basic issues the letter addresses. (When I preach on James, I often like to preach from the introduction of the letter, which allows me to preach most of the letter using just one or two paragraphs as my outline.)

First of all, we see the problem James confronts: his readers encounter various trials (1:2). As one reads through the letter, one gathers that many of his readers are poor people who are being oppressed by the rich (1:9-11; 2:2-6; 5:1-6). (Background sheds even more light on this situation, which was very common in James’s day: many wealthy landlords owned estates worked by peasants, and sometimes owned rickety tenements in cities as well. But for now I will continue to focus on whole-book context—how the work fits together.) Some of James’ readers appear tempted to deal with their problem of various trials in the wrong way: with a violent (whether verbally or physically) response (1:19-20; 2:11; 3:9; 4:2).

So James offers a solution demanding from them three virtues: endurance (1:3-4), wisdom (1:5), and faith (1:6-8). They need God’s wisdom to properly endure, and they need faith when they pray to God for this wisdom. James returns to each of these virtues later in his letter, explaining them in further detail. Thus he deals with endurance more fully near the end of his letter, using Job and the prophets as biblical examples of such endurance (5:7-11).

He also demands sincere rather than merely passing faith (2:14-26). What he says about faith here is instructive. Some of the poor were tempted to lash out against their oppressors, and might think God would still be on their side so long as they had not committed sins like adultery. But James reminds them (or perhaps their oppressors) that murder is sin even if they do not commit adultery (2:11). The basic confession of Jewish faith was the oneness of God, but James reminds his friends that even demons have “faith” that God is one, but this knowledge does not save them (2:19). Genuine faith means faith that is demonstrated by obedience (2:14-18). Thus if we pray “in faith” for wisdom, we must pray in the genuine faith that is willing to obey whatever wisdom God gives us! We must not be “double-minded” (1:8), which means trying to embrace both the world’s perspective and God’s at the same time (4:8).

James especially treats in more detail the matter of wisdom. He is concerned about inflammatory rhetoric—the sort of speech that stirs people to anger against others (1:19-20; 3:1-12). (At the risk of becoming a lightning rod, I may note with sadness that in some countries, such as my own, even some Christians engage in inflammatory rhetoric around election time.) This does not mean that James remains silent toward oppressors; he prophesies God’s judgment against them (5:1-6)! But he does not approve of stirring people to violence against them.

James notes that there are two kinds of wisdom. One kind involves strife and selfishness and is worldly and demonic (3:14); this is the sort of view and attitude that tempts his readers. James instead advocates God’s way of wisdom, which is gentle (3:13); it is pure—unmixed with the other kind of “wisdom”—and peaceable, gentle, ready to yield, full of mercy and the fruit of righteousness that is sown in peace (3:17-18). In other words, it has a lot to do with seeking peace. Especially in Judea, many were tempted to use violence (4:2) and desire the world’s way of doing things (4:4). But rather than taking matters into their own hands, they should submit to God (4:7).

James denounced the oppressors who killed the innocent (5:6), and was himself executed unjustly by a high priest. He was so beloved by the poor and Jewish people who observed the law, however, that the high priest was soon deposed for the action against him and others. Nevertheless, most people did not heed his warnings. (Compare how Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke up for peace, and many young people felt he was not radical enough. When he was assassinated, however, they erupted in protests. Even if they disagreed with his strategy, they knew that he stood for them.) Within a few years of James’s execution, Judea slid into war with Rome. Within three and a half years, the temple lay in smoldering ruins, with Jerusalem’s people enslaved or dead.

James is calling us to keep peace with one another. And if he calls the oppressed not to seek to harm their oppressors, how much more does he summon all of us to love and remain gentle toward those closest to us, even when they are unkind to us? “Resisting the devil” may involve more work than some people think.

Afternote: For the purpose of clarifying what I am not addressing: pacifists and just-war theorists will differ on where to draw the line when oppression becomes intolerable, and the guidance James offers is not specific enough to resolve the issue by itself. It should be noted that the level of oppression that James addresses was far below that involved in genocide or enslavement, but it was higher, for example, than that experienced by the U.S. Thirteen Colonies before the American Revolution. One cannot then securely apply James to protest force when needed to stop lethal violence (e.g., police intervening to stop a killing rampage or armed peace-keeping forces preventing genocide). But given the concerns of most of my readership, my point in this post is less about international relations than about interpersonal relationships.

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