James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings. (James 1:1)
James is one of my favorite New Testament books. There’s so much practical guidance within its pages concerning how to be a faithful Christian in one’s day-to-day life. What should we do when life is hard, and why does God want us to react that way? What mindset should we have when we pray? For what should we pray? How does sin originate in our hearts? How can we communicate better with each other? These and many other questions are answered in the book of James.
Who was James? The New Testament lists several who had that name. John’s brother, the apostle and son of Zebedee. Another apostle, the son of Alphaeus. There is a James mentioned in Luke 6:16 of whom nothing is known other than having Judas the apostle (not Iscariot) as a son. And there is the James who was one of Jesus’ brothers. Many believe he wrote this book, although it is possible either of the two apostles named James wrote the book. James is believed to be one of the earliest New Testament writings, if not the first book to be written, and some calculate it to have been written sometime between 40 and 50 A.D. John’s brother James was killed by Herod around 44 A.D. (Acts 12:1-2), so he could have written this book before his death. The other apostle named James, who would have also been inspired by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4; cf. 2 Pet. 1:20-21), could have also written the book. Apostles generally identified themselves as such in their writings (cf. 1 Cor. 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1), although not always (Matthew, John). The author of James does not identify himself as an apostle, but there remains the possibility that he could have been one. Jesus’ brother James (Matt. 13:55) initially did not believe in Him (John 7:5). That changed when Jesus appeared to him after His resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7). After the ascension, James is listed among Jesus’ disciples (Acts 1:14), eventually becoming a leader in the Jerusalem church (Gal. 2:9; Acts 12:17; 15:33ff, 21:18ff). Thus, he would have been in a good position to write this book.
James wrote to “the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad” (1:1). The literal twelve tribes of Israel no longer existed at that time. Ten of the twelve tribes had been conquered by Assyria centuries earlier, never to be heard from again. The two southern tribes remaining, Judah and Benjamin, had been conquered by Babylon and had since found themselves under Persian, Greek, and currently Roman rule. Thus, “the twelve tribes” is likely metaphorical in nature. It could figuratively refer to the Jews as a whole. If so, he would be writing to Jewish Christians as a whole specifically; we know this because he calls them “brethren” who “hold…faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (2:1; cf. 1:2). Since Paul refers to Christians as “Jews” or “Israel” in a spiritual sense (Rom. 2:28-29; 9:6-8; Phil. 3:3; Col. 2:11ff; Gal. 6:15-16), it could be that James calls Christians “the twelve tribes” as a way of calling them God’s chosen under the New Testament just like Israel was God’s chosen under the Old Testament.
It is interesting to note that James, whether he be one of the apostles or one of the actual brothers of Jesus through Mary, did not identify himself as such in his greeting. Instead, he simply referred to himself as “a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). “Bond-servant” (doulos) literally means slave; thus, James took the initiative to start his writing by calling himself the slave of God and Jesus the Christ (christos, Anointed One, Messiah), whom he calls the “Lord” (kyrios, Master). Christians, how often do we refer to ourselves as slaves of our Master, Jesus the Messiah? Using this same term (doulos, slave), Paul wrote of us: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:17-18).
Examine yourself, Christian. Are you still a slave to sin, or are you God’s slave?