Reading Time: 17 minutes

Faith at work: Are you where you’re supposed to be?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

facebook twitter instagram

Topic Scripture: James 1:1

For many in our society, place = success.

Janet and I moved to Atlanta in 1994 to pastor Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church. The church is located in “Buckhead,” a strange name for a residential area. The name comes from a tavern opened in the vicinity in 1837, whose owner mounted a buck’s head to attract interest. The area is today considered the most exclusive in Atlanta; living in Buckhead means you’re a success.

When we moved to Dallas, we discovered the same success/place identity. The area where you live is important to people, and even the street; and even the block on that street. Our house on Marquette is in the Highland Park school district, but is a Dallas address. Move the house one block west, and it is in University Park, and worth another $100,000, I’m told.

Where do you identify success with place? If you could change your “place” in life, how would you? A newer, larger house? Area? Address? Office location? “Place” in life–job, title, salary, social strata?

We are right: there is a “place” which defines success. Today we’ll learn where it is, and how to get to it this week.

What kind of literature is this?

A letter: the book of James is addressed “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings” (1:1b).

“Greetings” demonstrates the epistolary nature of this book.

This was a formal way of opening correspondence, found in the NT only here; with the opening of the letter from James and the Jerusalem Council to the Gentile Christians (Acts 15:23); and in the opening of the letter regarding Paul sent by Claudius Lysias, a Roman centurion, to Governor Felix (Acts 23:26).

A pastoral letter: James is “a quasi-prophetic letter of pastoral encouragement and, no less, of pastoral rebuke, proceeding from an unquestioned right of pastoral vocation and authority. It was most natural that James, as first ‘Bishop’ (or whatever we may style him) of Jerusalem, should address his charges, not only in Palestine but also in their many and great centers elsewhere” (Adamson 20).

Wisdom literature, like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (thus less systematic than Romans and similar literature):

James often uses a proverbial style: “he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (1:8); “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (1:22); “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (4:17).

He juxtaposes good and evil (cf. 3:13-18).

He uses “wisdom” with emphasis (1:5; 3:13-17).

He quotes Proverbs. 3:34: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (4:6).

Other parallels can be cited (cf. 1:5 with Proverbs 2:6; 1:19 with Proverbs 29:20; 3:18 with Proverbs 11:30; 4:13-16 with Proverbs 27:1; 5:20 with Proverbs 10:12; Burdick 164).

A treatise on the Sermon on the Mount:

  • Rejoice in trials (1:2; Matthew 5:12)
  • Ask and it will be given to us (1:5; Matthew 7:7)
  • Be perfect and complete (1:4; Matthew 5:48)
  • Be peacemakers (3:17-18; Matthew 5:5, 9)
  • Show mercy or be judged (2:13; Matthew 5:7; 6:14-15; 7:1)
  • Refuse oaths (5:12; Matthew 5:33-37)
  • Be meek (3:13; Matthew 5:3)
  • Refuse to hoard (5:2-3; Matthew 6:19)
  • Deal with anger (1:20; Matthew 5:22)
  • Be honest (2:14-16; Matthew 7:21-23)
  • Refuse divided loyalty (4:4; Matthew 6:24)
  • Refuse slander (4:11; Matthew 5:22; 7:1-2)
  • Claim the blessing of the poor (2:5; Matthew 5:3)
  • Follow the example of the prophets (5:10; Matthew 5:12; Martin lxxv-lxxvi).

A sermon: the book displays an amazing coherence with typical preaching methods in the first century (see Robertson 6-7, Barclay 27-30). Parallels with Greek sermons:

  • Began with a paradox which would capture the attention of the listeners (1:2)
  • Carried on imaginary conversations with opponents (2:18f; 5:13f)
  • Introduced transitions with questions (2:14; 4:1) and used rhetorical questions frequently (2:4, 5; 2:14-16; 3:11, 12; 4:4)
  • Fond of imperatives (nearly 60 in James’ 108 verses)
  • Personified virtues and vices (1:15; 2:13; 5:3)
  • Used figures of speech (the bridle, rudder, and forest fire were standards; 3:3-6)
  • Used the examples of famous men and women (2:21-23, 25; 5:11, 17)
  • Often concluded with a vivid antithesis, setting the right way beside the wrong (2:13; 2:26).

The Jewish sermon possessed an additional characteristic: it was deliberately disconnected. Speakers were instructed to jump quickly from subject to subject, so as to keep their hearers’ attention. Such preaching was called charaz, which means “stringing beads.” The letter as sermon would explain its lack of systematic theology, as James was speaking on the subject of practical Christianity.

Perhaps a sermon by James, later transcribed as a letter in the best Greek in the NT (with the possible exception of Hebrews). Some hold that James wrote the transcribed letter himself: “James both writes and thinks in Greek better than any other NT author” (Adamson 52). Others suggest that the letter was written by an amanuensis who recorded his sermon in excellent Greek (Barclay 33).

Inspired revelation, despite Luther’s assessment.

Luther’s Preface to the New Testament concludes: “the gospel and the first epistle of St. John, St. Paul’s epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians and Ephesians; and St. Peter’s first epistle, are the books which show Christ to you. They teach everything you need to know for your salvation, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or hear any other teaching. In comparison with these the epistle of James is an epistle full of straw, because it contains nothing evangelical.” Luther thought that James ascribes salvation to works, criticizes him for mentioning Jesus only twice, and considered the work non-apostolic in value.

But the date of the letter (see below) precludes the possibility that James contradicts Paul. The two wrote to very different audiences, for very different purposes.

When was it written?

Some believe the letter to have been composed before AD 50, and consider it perhaps the first book of the NT to be written. Evidence:

Jesus’ return is expected quickly: “Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!” (5:7). Some scholars consider this assertion to argue for an early date, believing that the expectation of Jesus’ imminent return faded somewhat as his Coming was delayed (an assertion I would dispute; cf. Revelation 22:20, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon'”).

The letter does not mention the Jewish/Gentile controversy, perhaps indicating that it was composed before Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council. This suggestion would date the letter before AD 47/48 (Moo 26).

The meeting place of the church is still identified as the synagogue (2:2, translated “meeting” in the NIV). Later the church gathering would be called the ekklesia, dropping the Jewish “synagogue” identity.

Elders are mentioned (5:14), but no bishops or deacons, perhaps indicating a very early stage in the church’s development.

The famine in Judea of AD 46 (Acts 11:28) is a likely backdrop for James’ discussion regarding the poor and the rich.

Others believe the letter to have been composed later in the life of James, for these reasons:

There are only two references to Jesus, suggesting to some scholars that the letter was composed in an era when the early, evangelistic preaching about the Lord had become more didactic, assuming knowledge of his life and work.

The rich are discussed often (1:9-11; 2:1-3; 5:1-6). In the earliest church there were apparently few wealthy members: “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26). Thus some believe the letter to have been composed during a period when more influential people had joined the church.

I accept a very early date for the letter (perhaps the mid-40’s), and believe James to be the first book of the NT to be written.

I believe that James’ lack of references to Jesus is a function of the letter’s purpose, and do not accept the assertion that the relative poverty of the Corinthian church precludes the existence of wealthy members in the Jerusalem congregation.

People from across the Roman Empire had gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Ac 2), families with enough means to make such a journey.

Many who trusted Christ that day apparently stayed in the city to compose the Jerusalem church, providing the social and cultural variety which James reflects.

Who are its recipients?

The letter is sent to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” The Greek literally translates, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion. The “twelve tribes” reminds us immediately of the people of God in the OT, the descendants of Jacob’s twelve sons (Exodus 1:2-5).

Diaspora means “scattering” or “dispersion.” The term indicates one who is living in a foreign country (Rienecker 375); cf. 1 Peter 1:1, “To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered (diasporas) throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.”

Some have interpreted this “scattering” as spiritual or metaphorical in nature, but it is most likely a geographical reference (Adamson 49-50).

The ten northern tribes of Israel were scattered into Assyria (ca. 922 B.C.), never to return; their descendants continued a Jewish presence in that land.

The southern kingdom of Judah was exiled to Babylon (586 B.C.); many never returned, but established a thriving Jewish community in that land which continued when Persia later conquered Babylon. Cf. Haman’s description of the Persian Jews to the Persian king Xerxes, “There is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all other people and who do not obey the king’s laws” (Esther 3:8). They lived in all 127 provinces of Persia (8:9; 9:30; 10:1).

In 63 B.C., Pompey took thousands of Jews to Rome as slaves, but they were soon freed and lived in that city in large numbers.

As many as a million Jews lived in Alexandria, Egypt in the first century, and multiplied thousands more in Antioch and Syria. Strabo, the Greek geographer, records, “It is hard to find a spot in the whole world which is not occupied and dominated by Jews” (Barclay 40).

By the first century, Jews numbering more than four million had scattered across the entire Empire and known world, as the question asked of Jesus made plain: “Will he go where our people live scattered among the Greeks, and teach the Greeks?” (John 7:35).

Note that at Pentecost, Jews were present from Rome and Crete to the west, Asia Minor (including Phrygia and Pamphylia), Pontus and Cappadocia to the north, Egypt and Cyrene (in northern Africa) to the south, the Parthian empire to the east (including Medes and Elamites), and Arabia to the southeast (Acts 2:9-11). Presumably, converts at Pentecost carried their faith back to these lands, bringing the gospel across the world.

The persecution which followed Stephen’s martyrdom further scattered these early believers: “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1; “scattered” is the same Greek root as in James 1:1).

They spread as far as Phoenicia (to the north), Cyprus (to the west), and Syrian Antioch (to the northeast) by Acts 11:19.

The literary style of the book indicates a wider audience than Palestine, where the people were mainly agriculturalists who spoke Aramaic. The koine (common) Greek of James’ letter was the typical language of those Jews who lived in Gentile lands (Robertson 10).

Given that many of them had been members of his church in Jerusalem, James would naturally feel a spiritual responsibility for them and wish to continue his pastoral ministry in their lives. Thus he writes with a note of authority which indicates his previous status as their spiritual leader (Burdick 162-3; Moo 50; Stulac 30-2).

The “twelve tribes in the dispersion” would likely have included those living in Jerusalem and Judea as well.

The rabbis typically saw the “twelve tribes of Israel” as representing all Jews everywhere; cf. Paul’s statement, “this is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night” (Acts 26:7; Adamson 50).

Hebraic customs abound in the letter. For instance, we find numerous examples of repetitive alliteration in the Greek (“you fall into various trials” [1:2] in the Greek is peirasmois peripesete poikilois; see also 3:5, 3:8; 4:8). Parallelism is also common (1:9, 10; 15; 17; 19, 20; 22; 3:11, 12; Oesterley 394-5; 406).

James speaks of the readers’ place of worship as a synagogue (2:2), and uses the Hebrew title kyriou sabaoth (“Lord Almighty” or “Lord of hosts”; 5:4).

His reference to the “early and latter rain” (5:7), hot winds (1:11), sweet and bitter springs (3:11), and figs and olives (3:12) indicate a Middle Eastern context (Lea 9). It seems likely that his readers had once lived or known of the Palestinian climate and culture, even if they are scattered beyond it now.

The internal linguistic evidence indicates that James was writing principally to Jews living in Greek lands and culture. But James does not confine his letter to those who are scattered outside Israel but means it for those living wherever Israel has been scattered, including Palestine.

Is James addressing only Jewish Christians; only Jews; or both? Internal evidence makes clear that his audience are believers:

He is a “servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ,” writing to people he calls “my brothers” (1:2).

He later calls his readers “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (2:1).

He mentions Jesus only twice and never explains the gospel of salvation, omissions explainable only if his readers are already believers (think of a pastor addressing a group of deacons or Sunday school teachers).

Peter likewise addresses his first letter to readers who are “scattered” in the world (1:1). But he makes clear that they are “God’s elect” (v. 1), and that they “have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, by obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood” (v. 2); clearly Christians can be “scattered” or “dispersed” as were the Jewish people.

What is its purpose?

Practical: the letter sets out the essentials of life lived according to God’s Law, to help the sincere live up to their faith and refuse conduct unworthy of a follower of Jesus (Adamson 20).

Pastoral: James wishes to continue his ministerial relationship with Jewish Christians who have been scattered from Jerusalem by persecution. He preaches his sermon/writes his letter to guide and encourage their continued faithfulness to God.

Apologetic: James knows that Christians are the best (and worst) arguments for Christ. He wants the followers of Jesus to live so faithfully that others will see their faith at work and want to join their commitment to their Master. In this sense, James is the most post-modern book of the NT, with the most thoroughgoing emphasis on relevance and praxis.

What is its structure?

Some have seen the letter as disjointed thematically. At first reading, the epistle does indeed jump from topic to topic with little or no transition or apparent overarching structure. But further investigation reveals an underlying pattern very typical of ancient Jewish rhetoric.

The author begins and ends with the same emphases: the need for patience (1:2-4; 5:7-12) and prayer (1:5-8; 5:13-20). The body of the letter centers in the Christian’s spiritual birth (1:13-19a), growth (1:19-25) and development (1:26-5:6). Such development can be measured by the use of the tongue, care for the needy, and personal purity in life (1:26-27), themes which will be developed in detail.

This thematic development can be outlined as follows (remember that the chapters and verses were added centuries later, and can be misleading):

  • Introduction: patience (1:2-4) and prayer (1:5-8)
  • Spiritual birth (1:13-19a)
  • Spiritual growth (1:19b-25)
  • Spiritual development (1:26-5:6)
    • control of the tongue (1:26; 3:1-12)
    • care for the needy (1:27a; 2:1-16)
    • personal purity in life (1:27b; 3:13-5:6; Motyer 11-13).

Theological truths

We are the people of God, wherever we find ourselves.

These Jewish Christians are now far from their Holy Land, their Temple, their pastor and church. Since they entered the Promised Land under Joshua, they have historically identified their faith with their place.

However, displacement is not new for the people of God (cf. Joseph in Egypt, Daniel in Babylon and a lion’s den, John on Patmos).

As Christians, nothing can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:35-39). David was right: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7-10).

The question is not where we are, but whose we are. Paul said it well: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi” (Philippians 1:1). We are “in” Christ spiritually and eternally, no matter where we are “at” physically.

God will meet our spiritual needs, wherever we live.

He used James, their “home church” pastor, to deliver revelation which addressed their specific spiritual problems and opportunities. They received theological teaching and encouragement which was more divinely inspired and enduring than anything they had learned while in Jerusalem.

In addition, they are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16), the body of Christ on earth (1 Corinthians 12:27-30). He will use his people to minister to each other, to encourage and guide to the abundant life of Christ, as he meets our needs by his grace (Philippians 4:19).

God cares about every dimension of our lives, “secular” and “sacred.”

The Hebrew people typically disparaged those who lived in Gentile lands (cf. the problem in Acts 6 with the widows). They would have considered these people to be “secular,” and would have given little attention to their lives and faith.

But James will speak to every part of their lives, not just their Sabbath religion and spiritual observances.

Apologetic issues

Why did God allow his people to be “scattered”?

Free-will theodicy: their persecution was the result of misused freedom on the part of the Jewish authorities, not the prescriptive will of God.

Soul-building theodicy: God used their dispersion to advance his Kingdom, bringing the gospel to those we encounter (Acts 8:1 fulfilled 1:8).

Eschatological theodicy: they would one day see the ways their scattered witness advanced the cause and Commission of Christ.

Existential theodicy: they learned to rely on God’s word and Spirit, not their geographical place and former religion.

How do we know we are God’s children even when we are far from home?

Nothing can take us from God’s hand (John 10:28).

Our children are still our children, wherever they live.

Concluding applications

Commit daily to his Lordship and will.

Invest eternally, using your resources where they can best serve the Kingdom.

Serve effectively, utilizing your gifts where you are placed in ministry.

Are you in the will of God today? Baker James Cauthen: “The only ‘place’ that matters is the center of the will of God.”

Are you faithful to serve God where you find yourself? We all have seen the poster or heard the saying: “Bloom where you are planted.” Mother Teresa says it better: Success = faithfulness in love.

Are you close to God spiritually, wherever you are located physically?