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“To Serve the Scattered”

James 1:1
Bob DeGray
January 7, 2001

Key Sentence

James serves the dispersed church by sharing the teaching of Jesus.


I. From James
II. To the Dispersed
III. Greetings


        I am, in general, pretty good at figuring out computers. But occasionally I’m defeated by an LCD watch. You know the kind: they usually have two buttons, and the buttons do different things under different conditions, whether setting the date or displaying the date, setting the time or displaying the time, setting the alarm, or displaying it, and different again when cycling between setting months, days, hours and minutes. Usually, if you push the buttons long enough, you can figure it out. But what you’d really like is a set of directions, and you never have a set of directions for an LCD watch, because you’re out in the middle of nowhere when you need to set it, and even if you were at home, the little flimsy page of directions that came with the watch has long since been thrown away along with the plastic package.

        The Jewish Christians of 47 A.D. may have felt the same way about their Christian lives. They had been scattered when a great persecution broke out in Jerusalem. Now, though their faith was intact, their lives had changed so radically they didn’t know quite how to live as believers in their new circumstances. They might have wished for a set of directions. And their pastor, the one who served them before they were scattered, may have recognized this need. As he heard that his beloved brothers and sisters were struggling in many places he may have wanted to help each of them. But he couldn’t, so this pastor, James, decided to send a set of directions.

        You and I, as well, are sojourners living in a land far distant from the kingdom of God to which we belong. We are, in the words of Scripture, aliens and strangers here. And sometimes, though we know the principles of the Christian life, we too feel that need for a set of directions, specific practical steps we can take to live our lives in a difficult world. Well those directions that James wrote for his scattered flock are also directions for us. By the power of the Holy Spirit the letter we call James, has been preserved in Scripture, and over the next eleven weeks we have the privilege of studying these practical directions for Christian maturity. I was attracted to the book of James last fall what we were studying the Fruit of the Spirit. When I began to look for passages that apply the Fruit of the Spirit to our lives, I kept landing in James. Finally, I decided that this letter needed to be preached, because of its practical value in aiding Christian maturity.
I. From James

        This morning we’ll begin to look at James by using the first verse as a launching point for an overview of the letter. We’ll will spend a little time looking at who the letter is from, who the letter is to, and the basic content of the letter. We’ll see that James serves the scattered church by sharing the teaching of Jesus. James 1:1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings.

        The first word in this letter, in Greek as well as in English, is James. This was a common Hebrew name, from which we also get Jacob. There are at least four individuals named James in the New Testament. First, there is James the Son of Zebedee. He was called to be an early follower of Jesus, along with his brother John. Acts 12 verse 2 records that this James suffered a martyrs death in A.D. 44 at the hands of Herod. It is not likely that he wrote this letter prior to his martyrdom.

        There was a second disciple named James, the Son of Alphaeus. He is mentioned only in the lists of the apostles, and possibly in Mark 15:40 as ‘James the younger’. While it is not impossible that he is the author of the latter, there is no evidence giving him a major role in the early church. A third James mentioned in the New Testament is the Father of Jesus’ disciple Judas, not Judas Iscariot. This name is probably mentioned only to distinguish between the two disciples named Judas.

        This leaves us with James, ‘the Lord’s brother.’ This James has a position of prominence in the Jerusalem church. Paul speaks of him in Galatians 1:19 and 2:9. He says that when he first went up to Jerusalem as a believer he spent time only with the apostle Peter and with James, ‘the Lord’s brother.’ When Paul went again to Jerusalem 14 years later, James was among those who extended the hand of fellowship, approving of Paul’s work among the Gentiles. Paul also mentions James in 1 Corinthians 15:7, where he says that the risen Lord appeared to James as well as to the disciples.

        By Acts chapter 15 James has taken a position of leadership in the Jerusalem church. When Paul and Barnabas appear before the Jerusalem Council to defend the Gentile mission, it is James who seems to be in charge of the meeting. The letter which was then brought by Paul to the Gentile believers may have been written by James. One bit of evidence that this James wrote the book we’re studying is that both letters begin with the word ‘greetings’, a common Greek salutation but one which does not appear in any other New Testament letter. Paul, as you know, opens his letters with some variation of ‘grace and peace’. ‘Greetings’ seems characteristic of James.

        Later, at the time of Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem, it is James who is the acknowledged leader of the Jerusalem church, and whom Paul consults about his stay. As a prominent leader, James is probably also a prominent pastor in the Jerusalem church. Of course, prominence itself does not prove authorship, but the fact that James can open his letter with just his name implies the author was a well known figure, and James ‘the Lord’s brother’ is certainly the most well known James in the New Testament. Tradition agrees. Eusebius, the early church historian, credits the letter to James, and gives a detailed account of his death in A.D. 62. This account is confirmed by the historian Josephus, who normally has little to say about Christianity, but who does mention the death of this particular Christian leader.

         I have already mentioned that Paul calls James ‘the Lord’s brother.’ But in the history of the Catholic Church he is known as the Lord’s cousin. Catholic theology came to view Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a perpetual virgin. Therefore, the Lord could not have any brothers or sisters, so that James and the others named in the Gospels must be half-siblings from a previous marriage by Joseph. Catholic scholars have presumed that the Greek word translated brother can mean cousin or other close relatives. But actual Greek usage does not bear this out. It always means brother when it is used of family relationships, rather than metaphorically for compatriots in a particular cause. Protestant scholars, and I agree with them, see no theological justification for anything other than the straightforward understanding that Mary and Joseph went on to have natural children after the birth of Jesus.

        The brothers of Jesus were not followers of Jesus during his earthly mission. John tells us in his gospel that these brothers gave Jesus cynical advice at a key moment in his ministry because they did not believe in him. In the other gospels Jesus’ mother and brothers seek him out in the midst of his ministry with the implied intention of opposing him. James himself, apparently, did not become a believer until after the resurrection, after he saw the risen Christ. Notice though that James describes himself in these verses as a slave to God and to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a little disappointing that he never identifies Jesus as his earthly brother, but it is also a tremendous example to all of us that even one who could have been proud of his earthly relationship had subordinated it to service, even slavery toward Jesus. James will teach us about humility later in his letter. He models it here in the first verse.

II. To the Dispersed

        The letter is from James. The letter is to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” This is not a very helpful inside address. There is no city mentioned, no country, no specific church or group of people. Instead James addresses a general category of people. They are first of all ‘the twelve tribes’. On the surface this would be a reference to the 12 tribes of Israel, the descendants of the sons of Jacob, most of whom had been scattered throughout the known world when Israel was conquered. It is unlikely however that James is writing a letter to Jewish people in general. He has already mentioned that he himself is a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in chapter 2 will address his readers as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore whoever these people are they must at least be Christians. Given that James was a pastor and leader in Jerusalem it is likely they were Jewish Christians. Further, the letter has a Jewish feel and is steeped in a Jewish understanding of the law and God.

        But why does James address these people as ‘the 12 tribes’. Possibly he recognizes in these Jewish Christians the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s frequent prophecies of the messianic kingdom. In Ezekiel, as well as in several of the Jewish writings that occurred between the Testaments, the 12 tribes are described as those who are restored by the Lord when the Messiah comes. They are the remnant that continue faithful to the Lord into the last days.

        I also find it interesting that the 12 tribes were the descendants of Jacob, and James is Jacob in Aramaic. I see in this letter a great deal of pastoral and fatherly concern for the people to whom he was writing, the concern of the patriarch for his people.

        James describes these people as scattered among the nations. In a Jewish context this word was used to describe the Jews who lived outside of Palestine among the Gentiles in Asia and in Greece and in Rome and in Africa. But since James was writing to believers, he cannot be addressing the Jews who had been scattered long before. Instead, I believe that this word gives us a clue to his specific audience. We see in Acts 8 and 11 that Jewish Christians were persecuted in Palestine and scattered. Acts 8:1 says “On that day” - the day Stephen was martyred -“a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered through Judea and Samaria. . . . 3But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. 4Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.

        Again, in Acts 11, beginning at verse 19 we read that “Those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. 20Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” God used this scattering to plant the seeds of the Gentile church.

        These are the only instances in Acts where this word scattered is used. It seems to me, as it has to number of commentators, that these verses describe the group of Jewish Christians to whom James subsequently writes. They were his parishioners, the people to whom he had ministered in Jerusalem, but now they are scattered into Samaria and Judea and further to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. James, as their pastor would naturally feel a responsibility to see to their ongoing care even though they were now living in many nations and cities. Therefore he writes in order to exhort and advise them in their new and difficult life situation.

        This understanding of the origin of the letter not only serves to identify a specific group of people to whom it is written, but also indicates the date it was written. James was martyred in 62 A.D. Some commentators have been convinced that he wrote this letter a year or two before his death. But if he is writing to these scattered Jewish Christians, we would lean toward an earlier date for this letter. The scattering in conjunction with Stephen’s persecution probably occurred around 44 A.D. This would place the time of the writing someplace around 45 to 47 A.D., when those who had been scattered found themselves in even more difficult or trying situations. By 60 A.D. the situations of all these Christians would have changed dramatically, and the words of their former pastor might not be as meaningful.

        This early date would also explain why Paul and James use the vocabulary of faith, works, and justification so differently in their writings. Paul was already preaching when James wrote this letter, but it is likely that James had not heard from Paul’s own lips the full explanation of what he meant by justification by faith. So James may have received reports about Paul’s preaching that exaggerated or misunderstood the element of faith, and which set up a tension between faith and works which James strives to resolve. We will see that in more detail what we study chapter 2.

III. Greetings

        So we have an author, James, we have a place or audience, the many Jewish Christians who had been scattered into the nations around Palestine by persecution, and we have a date in the middle of the A.D. 40s. All we need now is some idea of the content of this letter. The content of verse 1 is very simple. James says ‘greetings’.

        We will see in the coming weeks that James goes on to address a number of important subjects. One of the things we will constantly find in this letter is its practicality. James moves from subject to subject, sometimes coming back to a particular theme, but always giving practical and very direct advice on how to live their Christian lives. He helps his readers apply the Fruit of the Spirit in specific situations.

        The other incredibly notable thing about this letter is that the teaching of James parallels the teaching of Jesus. James never directly quotes Jesus, but almost every subject he touches his teaching grows out of the teaching of Jesus. Somehow James has become soaked, saturated with the ideas of Jesus, and as he shares his thoughts, they reflect the thoughts of Jesus. And since we too are supposed to become like Jesus, we will benefit greatly from this practical teaching, because it is the teaching of Jesus, given in new words by the Holy Spirit through James. James serves the scattered church by sharing the teaching of Jesus.

        Let me walk through the book quickly, pausing at a few points to bring out the influence of Jesus on James, while at the same time touching a few of the practical lessons James will teach us over the next several weeks. Flip through with me as I go.

        One of the first topics in the letter is how to deal with the many different trials that come. You remember that in Matthew 5 Jesus teaches “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad,because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” In Luke 6:23 Jesus says “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.” What does James say? James 1:2 “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” James 1:12 “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life God has promised to those who love him.”

        Later in chapter 1 James teaches that the secret of the Christian life is not knowing what the Scriptures say, but obeying what they teach. James 1:22 “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it__he will be blessed in what he does.”

        Where did James get his hard-hitting truth? From Jesus. Matthew 7:24 “Therefore every one who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

        There are many echoes of the Sermon on the Mount in James. Jesus says, Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” James says in chapter 3, “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” Jesus says in Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” James 4:4 echoes this very practical teaching: “You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”

        One of the great teachings in James concerns how to live humbly. James 4:10 instructs you to “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” Once again, this is exactly what Jesus taught. Matthew 23:12 “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

        Jesus also taught the danger of relying on riches. Do you remember the parable of the rich man? Luke 12. “And he told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.' "Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." ' "But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'” James teaches the same truth in chapter 4. Verse 13: “Now listen, you who say, Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a while and vanishes.”

        Again, Jesus said of wealth, Matthew 6:19_20, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” When we get to James 5 a number of weeks from now we will read, “Listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.” James apparently intended his letter to reach beyond the oppressed to the oppressors.

        Finally, both James and Jesus teach us to be ready for the Lord’s return. Matthew 24:42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know what day your Lord will come.” James 5:8 “You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near.”

        These are just a few of the correlations between the teaching of James and the teaching of Jesus. They are the foundation for the practical insight into a number of topics that James felt were important to his scattered audience - and which are also important to us. I think you’re going to like James, and I pray that it is going to change you. If it does, I know the direction I’d like you to change - to be like Jesus. I think James would agree with that. He has obviously worked hard to serve the scattered church by sharing the teaching of Jesus in a most practical way.