It is hard for us to understand in the 21st century just how radical it was for the first Christians to embrace the Gentiles which had come to believe in Jesus Christ. Like Jesus, they were for the most part Jewish, with a rare exception or two. But while Paul and Barnabas were on their first missionary journey an exciting twist of events occurred when increasing opposition to the Gospel from Jewish quarters opened wide the doors of Gentile evangelism. When it concerned God the Jews understood they had a unique relationship with Him. It was documented in the Mosaic covenant and demonstrated through circumcision and the keeping of God’s commands. Gentiles were outside of this relationship, although they were not completely barred from worshipping God if they believed in Him. When it was obvious that God had worked among the Gentiles and brought them into the community of faith, the natural human reaction was to incorporate these new believers into the practices and rituals of the Mosaic Covenant. In the early believer’s logic, it was the only thing that made sense. In order to be in the “Covenant Community”, one had to keep the commands of the Covenant. But Jesus was the author of a New Covenant (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:1-6; Heb. 9:1-15) and as James rightly interpreted this meant keeping “some” of the “old” but not necessarily all of it. Instead of picking and choosing what TO and what NOT TO keep from the Mosaic Covenant, James goes back to the commands which God gave pre-Mosaic Covenant which satisfies the Jewish believers, the Gentile converts and above all- the Lord Himself.
The Book of James fleshes out what it means to “live the Law”. It was probably written during the early years of the Church and while some will debate as to the exact date, it appears from the book itself that it was written before all of Paul’s epistles and to a general audience. Therefore it is broad in scope and principal but reading through it will reveal that James is both rooted and grounded in both the heart of the Mosaic Covenant and the teachings of Christ. These features can be seen in the way James reflects on God’s character and who we are as His children (Js. 1:13, 16-18, 27; 2:5; 3:9; 4:4, 6,12, 14; 5:4), and how He incorporates teachings such as The Sermon on the Mount into his letter (Compare Js. 2:5-Mt. 5:3; Lk. 6:20, Js. 1:12-Mt. 5:10-12, Js. 1:12 and 2:14-17-Mt. 7:21, 25:31-46 for example.).
I have heard many Christians express disregard for the Book of James. They eagerly agree with scholars like Martin Luther who looked down upon this lowly epistle due to its lack of acknowledging Christ’s death and resurrection or God’s gracious act of salvation through them. However, keeping the author and his intended recipients in mind erases the major component of this argument. The question at hand in the early church was not salvation, it was inclusion! One commentator wrote, “James seems to think his readers basically know and believe the Gospel, but they don’t understand its implications for living.” This makes James truly a book for today as many of us desire to translate what we know Jesus has done for us into how we live our lives. And that is exactly what James wants us to do. He wants us to take a magnifying glass and intently examine every inch of our lives using Scripture as the lens. James instructs us to look at the way we treat the less fortunate (Js. 2:14-26), how we respond to the “haves and have nots” (Js.2:1-13), and what governs our behavior (4:1-6; 4:13-5:6). If you took a magnifying glass to your life this week, how would you do? Read through James and see!
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
Week of 12/6/2015
* Yakov and Yeshua are the Hebrew names of James and Jesus. These names were Anglicized when the Bible was translated into English.
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