In a Nutshell
This letter is written to display the ways of the wisdom of the Lord.
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What context does the writer of the letter provide for us now as we read this letter?
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.
This is a well-liked and well-read book of the Bible. Many regularly comment that this is their favourite bible book because of its easy-to-follow, practical, aphoristic, down-to-earth teaching about walking the path of wisdom. It is the New Testament book of wisdom, even if its format differs from the counter-pointing style of the Old Testament "Proverbs". Here the writer draws our attention to the life we are called to live as a distinct people and, as we shall see, he at times adopts a poetic and song-like style to press his wisdom home. We will explore this aspect of style as we read through the letter. James encourages us in a variety of ways to look carefully at the path on which we are walking.
There's one sentence, mid-letter, that may help us identify the author. If so, it will bring us closer to pin-pointing the historical context in which the letter was initially penned. The sentence comes in a passage where the doubled-minded, double-speak of those presuming to take on the teaching office is exposed. There, James simply asks,
Who then is [the one who is] wise and competent among you? He is the one who lets his good works speak for him in the meekness of wisdom.
Of course, this confirms the view that this letter is about "actions speaking louder than words". As so we note that if one's life is formed in "the meekness of wisdom" then that will say all that needs to be said in each and any of life's "conversations". This doesn't mean one remains silent; it means that one's life is doing the speaking. And then, having identified this as the basic characteristic of the truly wise person, the writer says,
But if in your hearts you have bitter envy and ambitious rivalry, don't give such wisdom any respect, and cease lying against the truth [of this]. Such wisdom is not what has been passed down to you from heaven but is of the earth, instinctive and demonic.
So how did this writer come to understand this? Is he not implying that, in his own case, he has been decisively nudged to face the truth of what was in his own heart? Who is the truly wise and competent person? Well, he isn't saying:
Hey folks, listen to me. I'm the wise guy you need to listen to here!
No. That clearly is not what he was writing. For this writer, James, the wise person was indeed Jesus, the One who, letting His own good works speak for Him, convinced James of the truth, the truth that also lay in his heart. James writes as a servant of this Lord. Jesus Christ, by His life and resurrection, is the Meek One who inherits the earth according to God's eternal plan from the beginning (Matthew 5:5). Our question then is this: how was it possible for James to come to insight about "bitter envy and ambitious rivalry"? Or more specifically, how and when did he find the wisdom to face up to the truth and write so decisively about it as he does here? The answer is that he had discovered this wisdom from Jesus Himself.
And when was this? We turn to the authoritative record of Jesus' ministry by those who discovered the "way", the Gospels. These writings were composed because He had been their didaskolos, their Rabbi. Read the account of the consultation Jesus had with the mother of James and John, and note how she advised Jesus of His need for left- and right-hand associates, and why her sons, fitted the job specification she had drawn. This was a decisive moment in her learning curve, as it was for her sons, and for the rest of Jesus' disciples, then and subsequently.
You know [well enough] how the rulers of the nations maintain supremacy over them and their great people legitimate themselves over them [their subjects]. It shall not be like this among you … just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many [Matthew 20:25-26 - see entire passage 20:20-28 and Luke 22:24-30].
Why have we needed to be told about this episode? Why is it in our bibles anyway? The reason is obvious. It is a need which is evident in Jesus' disciples in every age. That is why this episode is found in the gospels and it is why the same teaching is reiterated in The Letter of James. Followers of Jesus stand in need of being taught how Jesus' teaching overcomes the strife that arises amongst themselves - on that former occasion an instinctive concern for status had gotten hold of them, and bickering and strife were evident (Luke 22:24). It was fuelled by their mutual indignation at the two sons who had been commended as suitable applicants for senior executive positions by their mother (Matthew 20:24). But in this way the disciples revealed just how earth-bound their wisdom was. They openly displayed this failing, but Jesus' teaching is clearly the antidote. It is upon that teaching that James, in this letter, relied.
So his up-front advice to those who know their desires to beat their neighbour at all costs, is this: "cease lying against the truth". Face it. You are filled with an inner, earthbound weakness, a proneness to devilish wisdom that he, as the letter's writer, also knows only too well. No advance on the path of the "meekness of wisdom" is possible if one continues to live in denial of that! This letter calls upon readers to acknowledge what's what.
So if this letter was written by James the brother of John, second son of the wife of Zebedee, then it was also the letter written by the one who was put to death by Herod, who wanted to appease those compromised religious leaders who maintained power over aspects of his treacherous administration (Acts 12:1-2). And so the diaspora referred to in the opening greeting of the letter not only refers to the ongoing dispersion of Jewish believers who had come to faith in Jesus Christ at the first Pentecost (Acts 2), but also to the further diaspora that followed the persecution after the death of Stephen, associated with the terror raids that were orchestrated by Paul's murderous plans (Acts 9).
And so that is the interesting "contextual" point, as we read this letter in 2011. It was wise advice given under trying circumstances, and it retains its value for those seeking to walk according to the teaching of the Risen and Ascended Lord.
One last point: the interesting point that can be taken from the above discussion is this: even if the letter was written by the James who became leader of the Jerusalem church (see Acts 15:13), the content of this letter has everything to do with the story associated with the two children of Zebedee, who Jesus had nicknamed the "thunder brothers".