The book we’re learning from this autumn term is James. Written by James, Jesus’ half-brother, it’s a small letter found in very last pages of the Bible. For some such as Martyn Luther, their wrestling with theology, might have been easier, if it was located perhaps, just beyond the last pages of the Bible!
This book challenges our behaviour, it’s famous for the words, ‘faith without works is dead!’. This small epistle has never been easy reading. As we learn from James, we need to brace ourselves, and buckle up. You cannot simply read James and then go about your business. His style of writing is direct, leaving no wiggle room. He’s keen that no one who read his words, and then, as he says in chapter 1, be looking in a mirror and then forgetting what they look like!
James is considered one of the earliest new testament books to be written. It was written, as it says in the opening lines to those Jews scattered throughout the empire, that is to Jewish messianic congregations. He expects his readers to have a deep understanding of the law, and as we study this, we’ll see he draws on it much in his teaching. Btw AD. 47-49 Before council AD 50 after Stephen AD 35 Ad 62 his death
In Jerusalem, James, this former unbeliever, appears to be in leadership (See Acts 15) and perhaps, as traditionally thought the senior leader of the messianic church there. Leading a church is sometimes a matter of diplomacy, James knew all about this. Walking a fine and dangerous line, between the predominant Jewish community and his messianic one. Add on top of that a Pharisee who has a fire in his belly for including Gentiles, (Paul) and you’ll begin to see how holding this all together would have been an exercise of jumping through hoops. We see a little of this in Acts 21.
James’ congregation is potentially poor. Jews were poor, except for leaders who took back handlers from Rome. We see Paul bringing aid to the believers there. It seems, like in many countries around the world today, to become a believer in Jesus is to risk rejection by one’s community and family. Loss of inheritance, property, trade, means a believer can often be left destitute. It’s no wonder James talks so much about suffering and poverty in his letter.
Tensions continue to grow in James’s region as Jewish nationalism grows, hatred against oppressive Rome and anyone seen as disloyal, such as those now proclaiming Jesus as the messiah, are enemies. By AD 62 James is dead, murdered, it is believed by those very same people who demanded the murder of his older brother, and by AD 70 many of these are also dead, as the temple, is crushed along with the spirit of the Jews, by the new Emperor’s son Titus. This fledgling church re-locates out of Jerusalem, as the gentile church flourishes throughout the known world.
As we read James, we hold grace and truth together. James won’t let us wiggle out, or excuse ourselves, it’s going to be uncomfortable, especially to wealthy westerners, but we have grace, as we stand justified by Jesus and seek to walk in his ways, out of that place of forgiveness and love.