We have begun a new sermon series on the epistle of James and you would know by now that the author of the epistle was the half-brother of Jesus. Yes, our Lord had brothers and sisters growing up together with him (Mark 6:3) and at least two followed him, became his disciples, and gave us the Epistles of James and Jude. According to tradition, James was martyred around the year 62 AD, marking the beginning of the third waves of persecution that would later include the martyrdom of apostles Peter and Paul. The first wave saw Stephen stoned to death around the year 34 AD (Acts 7). The second wave saw another James, the brother of John, killed by Herod around the year 44 AD (Acts 12).
And so it was believed that James wrote his epistle to his recipients in the context of the second persecution. From the content of the epistle, it can be observed that his recipients consists mainly the ordinary Jewish folks who had believed in Jesus. Most were not rich and many were still lacking maturity in the faith. So what happened when these people had to face such circumstances happening back then, compounded by the prophesised world-wide famine that seemed particularly acute in Judea where James lived (Acts 11:27-30)? Their faith wavered and they responded poorly to the situations as believers of the faith. So James wrote to instruct and correct them. Scholars noted that James draws precious lessons from the teaching of Jesus to address the problems, especially the Sermon on the Mount. The table below shows just some of the parallels between the two.
James 1:2 Joy in the midst of trials Matthew 5:10-12
James 1:5 Asking for good gifts Matthew 7:7ff
James 1:22 Hearers and doers of the Word Matthew 7:24ff
James 2:13 Blessings of mercifulness Matthew 5:7
James 4:4 Friendship of the world as enmity against God Matthew 6:24
James 4:11-12 Against judging others Matthew 7:1-5
James 5:2ff Moth and rust spoiling riches Matthew 6:19
James 5:12 Against oaths Matthew 5:33-37
So what were the main issues James had with the people that he had to write to them? Most scholars agree that there are three key areas and they are best encapsulated by the summary statement given in the following verses:
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
(James 1:26-27 ESV)
So it seemed that the Jewish believers had problem controlling their speeches and many were quick to speak but slow to listen, leading to much anger in the community such that James would devote the bulk of chapter 3 to deal with the problem of the tongue. It also seemed that they were not caring for those in need. But the problem behind is bigger, i.e. they were actually favouring the rich and neglecting kingdom work. James would devote chapter 2 to deal with the problem of partiality and a dead faith, i.e. one that is without work. And finally it seemed that they were allowing themselves to be stained by the world. And so James would devote chapter 4 and 5 to deal with the problem of worldliness.
So what can we say about James’ recipients when they were faced with persecutions? Well, to put it simply, they behaved like pagans. Remember the Epistle to the Hebrews? It was also written to Jewish believers who were facing persecutions. And how did they respond? Unlike James’ recipients, this group thought of returning back to the former way of Judaism. And so the author of Hebrews wrote to show them the superiority of Christ over the old covenant in order to encourage them to persevere on and not put their hope on something that had been made obsolete. It was an epistle filled with doctrines and the lesson for us is that a proper and sound theology helps to keep us strong and firm in the face of trials and tribulations. So knowing God is an important aspect of spiritual growth.
However, we are not Jews and most of us would probably not fall back on our former religious belief when faced with trials and tribulations. I suppose we might be asking lots of questions here and there but not listening out for God. And I guess there might be anger and conflicts arising because of our poor speeches. We might also neglect kingdom work and make friends instead with the world in order to find deliverance or favour. What do you think? If it happened back then to the early Jewish church when Jesus’ disciples were still alive, surely it can and will happen again to the modern church today. Therefore we will need to hear what James has to say to us in order that we may make it a time for faithful living in spite of our circumstances. So as the church embarks on this sermon series, let us take heed of the words of our Lord Jesus, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Pastor Ronnie Ang
September 9, 2012