Introduction – Reading James

Reading James

Aim:      The lessons in Part I of this book are entitled “The Epistle of James.”   They have been developed to hear God speak to us through this letter.  The aim is for each student to read James as if he or she is an original recipient.  The lessons are not commentaries; however, comments have been added to set up the context for each thought or block of scripture.  The lessons are presented in work sheet form for group Bible study.

A.    Biblical principles for reading and interpreting a letter.

Each Bible student becomes an interpreter because the Bible was written in another language and culture.  In our exegetical approach to the letter of James we do historical and literary analysis.  This is the way Christians control how we understand the writer’s divine instructions for the original recipients.  Hermeneutics is the study of how students of the Bible interpret the biblical literature for the here and now.  The word of God has been given to us in literature and in literature only.  There are no “God inspired” men or women capable of telling people anything God has not already presented in the Bible (Gal. 1:6-9).  Consequently, Christians let our exegesis control how we determine the meaning of the scriptures.

There are two other principles of biblical interpretation we will want to apply to our study of James and other letters while doing our historical and literary analysis.  One, we will want to follow the chain of thought, or style, of the writer.  This can be a challenge in the study of James’ letter because he did not follow standard form.  He did start with the first three standard elements of a first century letter.  First, he identified the writer and secondly, he identified the recipients.  The third element consisted of a simple “greetings.”  This could be construed as a portion of the body which is normally the fifth element of the letter.  The Apostle Paul generally inserted a prayer as the fourth element, but James offered no prayer.  If he used the sixth element, a formal close, it may be difficult to determine just where he started his closing statement.

For instance, James 1:26, 27 would have been a fitting close and it may have been the close of the introduction of several issues he discussed in detail in the remainder of the letter.  Consequently, if it were not for James 1:1, this document might not be construed as a letter.  It was not intended to be a personal letter addressing a specific issue.  James touched upon several topics in the first chapter.  Understanding these issues becomes a task for our historical analysis.  These issues may have been the area of general weaknesses throughout the churches at the time he wrote this letter.

In a broader sense they may be spiritual growth issues all Christians can expect to encounter.  We must understand the issues in our historical analysis before we can do our literary analysis.  We gather James’ divinely inspired answers for dealing with these issues in our literary analysis.  These principles will work for us in our own spiritual growth.   Christians want to understand the laws of life God has presented in the new covenant.  These laws are embedded in the book of James and the other New Testament documents.  Applying the law of life to our spirits is how Jesus Christ is the Lord of Christians’ lives.

The other principle we will be deeply concerned about while doing our analytical work is this:  Christians must know what the recipients knew.  James merely mentioned some doctrines in his teaching about spiritual growth issues.  This means he believes the recipients knew the doctrines.  If we do not know what they knew we will want to review this doctrine from other studies of the Bible in order to follow the style of the writer.  For instance James stated, “But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom… .”  Jas. 1:25.  If we do not have a working understanding of this law, we will not understand his application.  We will need to do our homework to know what the recipients knew.  James was not writing to people in the world realm or “babes in Christ.”  He was writing to Christians who were functioning in the body of Christ.  They had been enlightened (Heb. 10:32; I John 2:20).  They were mature enough for Jesus’ faith testing exercises for developing perseverance.

B.    The following are some of James’ perceptions of general issues the churches were encountering.  We need to determine the main reason(s) James wrote this document.

1.    God’s discipline for testing Christians’ faith.  Jas. 1:2-4, 12; 2:20-23.

2.     Patience and its work.  1:2-4, 19, 20; 5:7-11.

3.    The churches’ source for wisdom.  1:5-8; 3:13-18.

4.    Effective prayer.  1:5-8; 4:8; 5:13-16.

5.    The first fruits of God’s creation, the church. 1:18.   The church members are those mature people who accept Jesus as: “The noble name of Him to whom you belong.”  2:7.

a.    Church fellowship and care for one another.  1:27; 2:14-17; 4:11; 5:13-20.

b.    Social stratification in the church should not be practiced.  1:9-11; 2:1-11.

c.     Rich and proud.  4:13 – 5:6.

6.  Births and their sources.

a.    Christians.  1:16-18.

b.    Sin. 1:13-15. Result:  Death – a problem for the “self.”  3:3-16; 4:1-10.

7.  Christians who have their faith “made perfect” are “counted righteous” by God (2:21, 22).  This doctrine allows faithful Christians to be free of guilt about our weakness.  This grace provides us with a peaceful relationship with God while we overcome the character and personality traits that do not produce the righteousness of God in our behavior.  1:19-27; 2:14-26.

8.    Teachers / Leaders.  3:1, 13; 5:14.

9.    Communication (the tongue).  1:19, 26; 2:12, 13; 3:2-12.

10.    Lust versus inherent needs.  4:1-3.

11.    God’s judgment of Christians.  2:12, 13; 3:1.

12.    The sin of judging other peoples’ motives.  4:11, 12.

C.    Propositions set forth by James in the form of rhetorical questions to inspire the recipients’ reasoning powers.  Please note their relationship to the foregoing list.

1.  “Has God not chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”  2:5.

2.  “Is it not the rich who are exploiting you, dragging you into court?”  2:6.

3.  “Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of Him to whom you belong?”  2:7

4.  “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save him?”  2:14.

5.    “You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?”  2:20.  Examples:  Abraham, v 21.  Rahab, v 25.

6.    “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?”  3:11.

7.    “Can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?”  3:12.

8.    “Who is wise and understanding among you?”  3:13.

9.    “What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle from within?”  4:1.

10.    “Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?”   4:4

11.  “Do you think scripture says without reason that the spirit He caused to live in us envies   intensely?” 4:5.

12.    “Who are you to judge your neighbor?”  4:12.

13.    “What is your life?”  4:14.

14.    Is any one in trouble?   Is anyone happy?  Is anyone sick?  5:13-16

D.    Doctrines mentioned by James he assumed the recipients understood. 

1.    Deity.  1:1; 5:4.

a.  God our Father.  1:17, 27; 3:9.

b.  Lord Jesus Christ. 2:1.

c.  Holy Spirit.  4:5.  James could be speaking of the human spirit; however, the context suggests a condition where the Holy Spirit who fellowships Christians would be jealous if we were in fellowship with the world.

2.    The devil and demons. 2:19; 3:15; 4:7.

3.    All of mankind has been created in God’s likeness. 3:9.   Christians are the “first fruits” of God’s creation.  1:18.

4.    New birth.  1:18.

5.    New covenant.  1:21. See Heb. 8:10-12.

6.    Justification by faith.  2:23-25.

7.    Law of life.  1:25; 2:8, 12.

8.    Law of sin and death.  1:13-15; 5:20.

9.    Elders leading the church.  5:14.

10.    Restoring a lost member of the church family.  5:19, 20.

11.    Resurrection and Judgment.  2:12, 13; 3:1; 4:12; 5:7-9.

12.    Inheritance reserved for those who love the Lord.

a.    Crown of life.  1:12.

b.    The kingdom of God.  2:5.

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