A Letter to Test Your Faith
The New Testament book of James is like a file that puts a sharp edge on our faith. It puts our faith to the test: the test of perseverance, the test of blame when tempted, the test of works, the test of the tongue and worldly indulgence… and many other tests. The purpose of any test that God gives to believers is to strengthen their faith in Him. This epistle itself was one of the most tested of all the NT letters. As some of you are aware, Martin Luther had initial problems with the book of James because of the emphasis of works in relation to faith. Luther came to see that James was not in opposition to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but rather James was God’s messenger to protect that doctrine from the easy-believe-ism which is so rampant in our own day. This is why we often say that while we are saved by faith alone, the faith that saves is never alone—it is always accompanied by works of righteousness.
The letter of James is named after its author. The James in question is widely identified as the oldest half-brother of Jesus and the full brother of Jude, who wrote the little book before Revelation. These half-brothers of Jesus rejected Him for the first part of their lives even though they saw Him with their own eyes and heard Him with their own ears. It was not without the gift of faith that either of them called Jesus their Lord and their God. The early lives of James, Jude and most of the other citizens of 1st century Israel prove that merely seeing is not believing. Most of the people who saw Jesus and heard Him preach still didn’t believe. The written Word of God received by faith is more powerful and more compelling than if you had been in the physical presence of Christ. But James did become a Christian with great influence in the early church. In Acts 15, the letter he wrote on behalf of the Jerusalem Council has the same writing style that we find throughout the book of James.
James had seen the risen Christ; he was an associate with the apostles and a leader in the Jerusalem Church. So his words are written with the authority of an eyewitness. But not only that, James is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He’s writing to Jewish believers who were scattered abroad between A.D. 44-49 during the persecution brought about by Herod Agrippa, described in Acts 12. If this timing is correct, it makes James the earliest written book of the NT. It had to be early because James was martyred at around 62 A.D. That’s according to Josephus, a reliable first century Jewish historian.
Let’s use the first verse as our introduction to the book of James and the series. We’ll do a bit of an overview as we begin our study of James. James 1, verse 1… In honor of God and His Word, let’s stand for the reading of the first verse.
James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings. [NKJV]
[Prayer] In this introduction to the letter of James, I want to show you something about the author himself, something about his purpose for writing, and conclude with a thumbnail sketch of the whole letter. First, let’s begin with a look at the author himself…
I. The life and character of James is marked by humble servant-leadership (1a).
The first part of verse one tells us volumes about the man who wrote this letter: “James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ…” What a revealing introduction to the man writing this epistle. If you think this first phrase isn’t very revealing, consider what all James chose not to include about himself.
He could have asserted his biological credentials as being the half-brother of the King of Creation. He could have reminded them that he was the senior pastor of the powerful church at Jerusalem, which even the apostles attended from time to time. He could have told them how he personally saw the risen Lord in the flesh. He could have referred to his role as an advisor to the apostles in Acts 15 because of his great influence in the early church. But he didn’t exalt himself in any way. Rather, he refers to himself as a bondservant… a doulos, a slave.
The Greek word doulos is used for a person who is born into slavery and didn’t choose it for themselves. There’s another word for the slave who sells himself into slavery by his own choice, but that’s not the way James saw his servanthood. He was born that way by a new birth. It wasn’t because of his choice; it was because God chose Him in Christ before the foundation of the world. He was a doulos from the moment of his new birth in Christ.
This title of slave or bondservant tells us that James is humble about his role as a leader in the church and about his position in God’s kingdom. In the mind of James, the greatest thing about him is not who he leads, but who he serves. He serves the Lord Jesus Christ! That reality is now greater to him than everything else on his earthly resume. It’s greater because the slave of God has more authority than the king of any earthly kingdom, even as God is greater than any earthly ruler.
Sometimes when the president needs a representative in a foreign country, he’ll appoint an envoy to go on his behalf. That envoy arrives in the foreign country with the full support and authority of the president’s administration behind him or her (as when Condolezza Rice went to Iraq to broker a deal on President Bush’s behalf.) The representative is respected because of the one they represent and for whatever power that person has. As a servant of God, James says, “I represent the Lord Jesus Christ in what I’m writing to you!” For those who recognize who God is, whatever James writes will be of eternal importance to them. He has their full attention. But who are these people? And what was his purpose for writing? That takes us to the second major point…
II. The ministry and mission of James is directed toward believers struggling to maintain strong faith during hard times (1b).
Listen to the second half of verse one: “to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings.”
When God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, he was the father of twelve sons. Each of these sons represented a tribe in the nation of Israel. This reference to the “twelve tribes… scattered abroad” tells us that James is writing primarily to Jewish Christians… although there were many Gentile Christians mixed into this church as well. In a spiritual sense, all believers are grafted into God’s covenant community of faith, which goes back to the very beginning. Abraham had to be saved by faith in what God revealed to him. This faith was God’s gift to Abraham. In the same way, you too must be saved by faith in what God has revealed through His Son, Jesus Christ. Again, this faith is the gift of God for all of His people.
In this sense, Abraham and all the OT believers were part of God’s community of faith; they found grace and favor in the eyes of the Lord. But in the NT, beginning at Pentecost and continuing until the return of Christ, we have the church age. This is the time in which we now live. Believers today are part of the church; but the church did not exist in the OT. The church is not the same as ethnic Israel and Israel is not the church. Nor did the church replace Israel as God’s covenant people; rather, the church represents those who by faith were grafted in to the original vine which is the faithful remnant within ethnic Israel.
The NT church is a spiritual community, not ethnic. Abraham was not a part of the church, yet he is very much a part of the community of faith—and we’ll see him in Heaven. So the church today is just the full manifestation of what God promised to Abraham before Christ had been revealed. We are saved by grace through faith. That has always been the way to God. Being saved by grace through faith has never varied since the beginning of creation. That’s the only way anyone comes to God. Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation of who God is and no person can come to God or enter Heaven except through faith in His finished work on the cross.
The author of Hebrews put it this way:
God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2 has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; 3 who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high… [NKJV]
Now because God revealed Himself through His covenant with Abraham and the Jewish people, they represent the root of genuine faith in God—not because they’re Jewish—but only when they trust God as Abraham did. Those who don’t have faith in God will not enter the Kingdom of heaven, regardless of their physical relation to Abraham. Christians in the church age are therefore grafted-in to the original root of faith represented by Abraham and his faithful offspring, culminating in the birth of Jesus Christ. For this reason a Gentile believer can be called a spiritual member of the twelve tribes of Israel… because they are grafted in by faith in Christ.
To say that these tribes were scattered abroad (or dispersed) means they were relocated anywhere outside of Israel. Over the previous centuries, various nations (including Rome) had deported Jews from their homeland and spread them throughout the known world. The word “diaspora” (scattering) became a technical term to describe Jews living outside of Israel. And they were going through hard times because of persecution; they were a minority in a Gentile population plus they were Christians who didn’t fit in with other Jewish nationals. So they are suffering trials because of their faith and James is writing to build their faith with some tests.
This leads to our final point…
III. The book of James is an inspired standard to test the genuineness of our faith.
The test for James’ audience applies to all believers. In the first chapter, you have the test of perseverance in suffering; the test of blame in temptation; and the test of your response to the Word of God.
Then in chapter two you have: the test of impartial love; and the test of righteous works.
In chapter three you have: the test of the tongue; and the test of humble wisdom.
In chapter four you have: the test of worldly indulgence; and the test of dependence.
In chapter five you have: the test of patient endurance; the test of truthfulness; the test of prayerfulness; and the test of genuine faith.
These tests constitute an outline of the whole letter of James. Why do we need these tests for our faith? Because life is filled with trials and hardships. You and I will go through times of weakness when we feel like giving up… but God wants us to look to Him for strength. He wants your faith to be tested, which builds spiritual muscle, which then trusts God at a greater level.
James is going to take our faith to the weight room to build some spiritual muscles. Next week (Lord willing) we’ll be looking at the test of perseverance in suffering. Until then,
(c) Charles Kevin Grant