The letter of James is a letter with its own particular character. Of course that goes for each letter in the Bible, but still this letter is indeed exceptional, as you will discover. It takes a special place in the New Testament. You could compare the place of the letter of James among the other letters with the place that Jonah takes in the Old Testament among the other prophets. All old testament prophets have a message for the people of God, except Jonah. Jonah is an exception, for he is sent with a message from God to the Gentiles.
Many letters in the New Testament, especially those of Paul, address the believers as members of the church and as united with Christ. James is an exception, for he addresses his letter “to the twelve tribes” of Israel “which are scattered abroad”. Therefore James writes his letter to the people of Israel in total. It is also remarkable that he, although he mainly addresses the Jewish Christians (he uses the word ‘brethren’ fifteen times), also addresses the unbelieving Jews.
James does not speak about heavenly blessings in his letter, which are part of the church and the individual believer. He writes about the practice of the life of faith. In his letter he addresses everyone who confesses to belong to God’s people and tells him what such a person is supposed to show in practice. What a person says has to become visible. The life from God is to be shown. That is also essential, for the works of faith are to other people the only proof that there is real faith present in the heart. Faith works through love (Gal 5:66For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.) as an expression of the new creation that the believer is in Christ (Gal 6:1515For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.; 2Cor 5:1717Therefore if anyone is in Christ, [he is] a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.).
In this letter you do not find much doctrine or teaching. Possibly this letter has already been written before Paul wrote his letters. It nevertheless needs to be said that, to make this letter a reality in your life, it is necessary that you know the doctrine of Paul’s letters. Therefore it is not a letter that you just unthinkingly bring into practice. It is about living out the new man and about that new man Paul tells everything in his letters. If you have read his letters you will certainly recognize this. Although the rank order of the letters, as we have in the Bible, is not inspired, the letter of James therefore takes, right after the letters of Paul, a remarkably justified position.
The recipients are the people of God that are still a part of God’s earthly people. They are still not separated from them. The people as a whole have rejected the Lord, while these recipients yet confess that they possess the faith in the Lord Jesus as the Lord of glory (Jam 2:11My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with [an attitude of] personal favoritism.). That means that through this letter God makes us familiar with a form of Christendom, which is a mixture: the Jewish Christendom. It is a letter that is written with a view to a transition phase of the old (Judaism) to the new (Christendom). The particular period of time in which we could best place this letter is the time of the church life of the first believers, as it is described in the book of Acts.
In this transition time God tolerates that certain customs of the old people of Israel are still being maintained in the newly established church. Soon there will come an end to that transition time, due to the destruction of Jerusalem that will take place in the year 70 by the Romans (the letter of James was dated between the years 45 and 62). James actually stresses that also when he speaks about ‘the last days’ (Jam 5:33Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!). In a certain sense you may therefore call this letter an ‘end-time letter’.
Therefore this letter is also a topical issue to us. We also live in an end time and indeed the end time of Christianity. Also the end time in which we live will be closed with judgments. Another thing is that we are on the threshold of a new time that will come after the judgments. That new time covers a period of a thousand years, a period that is characterized by peace in heaven and on earth under the most blessed government of the Lord Jesus.
In the rank order we have in the Bible this letter follows after the letter to the Hebrews. However, most apparently the letter to the Hebrews has been written later than the letter of James. In the letter to the Hebrews, also addressed to Jews, the call sounds to go forth outside the camp (Heb 13:1313So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach.). That call sounds also with a view to the coming destruction of Jerusalem. We do not find such a call in this letter.
The people of Israel are still being addressed. James addresses those who are scattered, namely the Israelites who are scattered everywhere among the nations. He still sees the whole people, like Elijah (1Kgs 18:3131Elijah took twelve stones according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD had come, saying, “Israel shall be your name.”; cf. Ezra 6:1717They offered for the dedication of this temple of God 100 bulls, 200 rams, 400 lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel 12 male goats, corresponding to the number of the tribes of Israel.) and Paul (Acts 26:77[the promise] to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly serve [God] night and day. And for this hope, O King, I am being accused by Jews.) did, until God executed judgment.
James has a leading position in the church at Jerusalem. You may say that he is the leader of this church. The church at Jerusalem consists of Jews who came to faith in the Lord Jesus, but who did not differ from their unbelieving compatriots, concerning the exercise of their religion. Among them James, together with Peter and John, is considered to be a pillar (Gal 2:99and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we [might go] to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.).
When Paul comes to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey, he goes to James with whom all elders of Jerusalem gather together. In the conversation that follows Paul is told that already ten thousands of Jews have come to faith, who all are zealous workers for the law (Acts 21:2020And when they heard it they [began] glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law;). Under the leadership of James they submit a proposal to Paul through which he could show that he is also a Jew who is faithful to the law. Paul’s agreement with this proposal means the end of his public service.
Here you see how great the influence of James is. That great influence is also to be seen during the apostle meeting where James gives the decisive response that the Gentiles should not be troubled to keep the law (Acts 15:13-2113After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me.14Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name.15With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written,
16‘AFTER THESE THINGS I will return,
AND I WILL REBUILD THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID WHICH HAS FALLEN,
AND I WILL REBUILD ITS RUINS,
AND I WILL RESTORE IT,
17SO THAT THE REST OF MANKIND MAY SEEK THE LORD,
AND ALL THE GENTILES WHO ARE CALLED BY MY NAME,’
18SAYS THE LORD, WHO MAKES THESE THINGS KNOWN FROM LONG AGO.
19Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles,20but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.21For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”).