The Old Testament in James
The book of James begins with this passage; “James, a bond- servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.” (Jas 1:1) Who wrote the book? Though there has been much discussion about authorship the only real viable answer is James the brother of Jesus. This view also has much support from ancient tradition.1
Who is the audience? The first verse says, “To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad.” (Jas 1:1b) Is he literally writing to the twelve tribes of Israel or is it metaphor for the chosen people of God? At face value this could mean that the letter was written to Jewish believers who were dispersed outside of Palestine, but the apostle Paul contends that the true Israel of God is spiritual and not ethnic. Therefore, in that since it could be written to all believers who are facing the hardships of being citizens of the kingdom of God who are presently dwelling in the kingdom of man.
Because of its placement in the New Testament canon most consider it to be an epistle, but I think it best viewed as a homily or sermon. The book begins with a thesis statement (Jas 1:2-21) and concludes with exhortations to keep walking in the faith. (Jas 5:7-20) In between the thesis statement and the conclusion are three wisdom essays on being quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. (Jas 1:22-5:6) “James refers to wisdom as the divine word of truth.”3 One of the main purposes for James is to promote active faith in the believer. (cf. Jas 2:20)
James uses Old Testament figures as examples. The first two Old Testament figures that James uses are Abraham and Rahab. Both of these Old Testament figures appear in the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews chapter 11. These Old Testament figures are exemplified in the “Hall of Faith,” because of their actions that resulted from their faith; which is the point that James is making by using them in his writing. Abraham offered Isaac on an alter out of faith, (Jas 2:21) and Rahab the harlot received the messengers and sent them away another way out of faith. (Jas 2:24) James follows Abraham's example of active faith by saying, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (Jas 2:23) Then he follows Rahab’s example of active faith by saying, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (Jas 2:25) James used the Old Testament figures of Abraham and Rahab as examples of active faith.
The next two Old Testament figures that James uses is Job and Elijah. In James chapter 5 he is extorting the readers to not be inpatient and to not complain, but to have endurance during their suffering. He then uses the prophets and Job as examples of patients and endurance while suffering. (Jas 5:10-11) He then turns to the subject of prayer saying, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” (Jas 5:16) He then uses Elijah as an example of effective prayer in a righteous man and declares him to be no different than us. (cf. Jas 5:17-18) The only difference would be the faith of Elijah.
The epistle or homily concludes with James’ purpose for writing it; that is enduring active faith until the Parousia. (Jas 5:19-20) Abraham was an example of faith; he trusted God and demonstrated that faith by offering Isaac on an altar. (Jas 2:21-22) Rahab was an example of faith; she believed in the God of the Israelite's and demonstrated that faith by receiving the messengers and sending them out a different way. (Jas 2:23) Job was an example of faith; he endured suffering believing God to be good, and therefore, saw the Lord’s compassion and mercy. Elijah is an example of faith; he believed that God would answer when he prayed. (Jas 5:17-18) All four of these figures demonstrate the point James makes; and that is you cannot demonstrate faith without works, therefore, faith without works is dead. (cf. Jas 2:18-20)
1 R. W. Wall, “James, Letter of” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, eds. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H, Davids (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1997), 545.
2 R. W. Wall, “James, Letter of” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, eds. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H, Davids (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1997), 548-549.
3 R. W. Wall, “James, Letter of” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, eds. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H, Davids (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1997), 552.